By Michael Wilbon
Saturday, March 18, 2006
DAYTON, Ohio The tournament could have been played without George Mason, and nobody outside of Fairfax would have noticed. The team without an NCAA victory in its history, a team that put the "mid" in mid-major -- a team playing without its best player -- beat a power conference powerhouse here Friday night. And even if it wasn't the biggest upset of the day -- Northwestern State beating Iowa qualifies as that -- it was big enough for George Mason which, after 27 years of basketball, discovered the true joy of March Madness.
Only loyalists overdosed on optimism had George Mason beating Tom Izzo and Michigan State in this first-round game. Since 1999, the Spartans have been to the Final Four four times. They started three future pros, maybe three lottery picks Friday night. And George Mason, with its best player, Tony Skinn, suspended and in street clothes for punching a kid in the crotch two weeks ago, beat 'em anyway. No. 11 beat No. 6. The CAA beat the Big Ten.
You think Billy Packer got this one right on his bracket?
Anybody who follows college basketball closely knows the names Shannon Brown, Maurice Ager and Paul Davis. They were all high school all-Americans. They were in the Final Four last year. They're going to get rich in the NBA soon enough. On the flip, nobody outside of Fairfax knows Gabe Norwood, Will Thomas, Chris Fleming, Folarin Campbell, Jai Lewis, Sammy Hernandez and Jordan Carter. They play for George Mason.
Georgetown felt pretty darned good after winning its first NCAA tournament game since 2001. George Mason was positively euphoric after its first NCAA tournament victory, period. And Izzo, whose teams are nothing if not rawhide tough, paid the Patriots the ultimate compliment when he said afterward, "The took it at us early . . . kicked out butts inside."
The Patriots could easily have been in the NIT, you know. They could have been hanging out with Maryland and Cincinnati and Temple. George Mason had a great regular season, going 23-7, and finishing with a RPI that hovered right around No. 28 on Selection Sunday. But Mason lost twice to Hofstra in 11 days -- including the conference tournament and Hofstra, ridiculously enough, wasn't invited to the party while Mason was. Both should have been, though that would really have brought the criticism down on the committee.
Packer, who let me say is the very best in the business of analyzing and commenting on college basketball games, got his boxers all in a bunch because in his way of thinking the power conferences -- Big Ten, Big East, ACC, Big 12, SEC, Pac-10 -- didn't get enough bids. Packer, it seems, would just as soon every school not in those conferences -- the ones who, by the way, do business with his network, CBS -- be sent out of the country after their mid-major league tournaments. That includes the CAA, the Colonial Athletic Association, for those of you alphabetically challenged.
George Mason has been to the NCAA tournament only four times, never as an at-large team. In fact, the last time a team other than the CAA's tournament champ was invited to the NCAAs was in 1986. Nonetheless, Mason played with so much more purpose than, say, Seton Hall of the Big East. So, it should come as no surprise that quite a few folks were chanting Packer's name when George Mason finally closed out Michigan State.
And George Mason's coach, Jim Larranaga, wasn't just celebrating his team's victory. Walking out of the arena, he informed a reporter that Old Dominion of the CAA had gone out west and beaten the Big 12's Colorado by 18 points, and that the aforementioned Hofstra of the CAA had beaten the Big 12's Nebraska by 11. Larranaga positively beamed. It has become a crusade, the theme of the tournament through the first two days.
When you win in the tournament for the very first time, some of the game details get lost -- such as the Patriots missing 14 of 26 free throws and trying to choke it away down the stretch. But it also gets lost that Thomas, the 6-foot-7 forward from Baltimore, made 8 of 12 shots, finished with 18 points and 14 rebounds, and thoroughly outplayed Michigan State's Davis. It gets lost that Mason, mostly Lamar Butler from Oxon Hill, hit some huge three-pointers to build a lead, and that the Patriots just hammered a Big Ten team on the boards 40-24, and that they shot 59 percent.
It gets lost that junior swingman Gabe Norwood, who started in place of Skinn, played an efficient 34 minutes and great defense. It gets lost that Campbell, the 6-4 guard from Springbrook, more than made up for Skinn's absence by making all eight shots from the field en route to scoring 21 points and grabbing seven rebounds.
Who would have thought George Mason would build a double-digit lead down the stretch and have less drama in its opening-round game than 27-2 George Washington? Who would have thought all three Georges would advance to the second round? It was no great surprise that Georgetown beat Northern Iowa, though the daily improvement of the Hoyas' 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert is quite the story.
While John Thompson III is known more for beautiful offense than his father who might as well have invented modern-day college defense, it was Georgetown's defense which stifled Northern Iowa and held the Panthers to 25 percent shooting after intermission. And now Georgetown might be able to play free and loose against Ohio State, which has all the pressure of playing in front of its home crowd.
Georgetown advancing is something Billy Packer could handle. But what followed, the ouster of Michigan State, was nothing less than a shocker, even if the Spartans did have a rather up-and-down season by their standards.
The Patriots live to play at least once more, on Sunday, against North Carolina, the defending champ and, of course, another powerhouse from a power conference with even more March pedigree than Michigan State.
Nobody outside of Fairfax has Mason beating the Royal Tar Heels, either -- not Packer, not me, not anybody unless they're simply picking teams with green and gold uniforms. But the tournament, at its best, produces just these kinds of results, the ones where the school that doesn't believe it isn't supposed to win beats the team everybody thinks will advance. It's a real good thing this tournament wasn't played without George Mason, after all.