By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 20, 2006
DAYTON, Ohio, March 19 -- A week ago, the George Mason men's basketball team was the talk of the college basketball world, because CBS commentator Billy Packer and others felt the Patriots had received an invitation to play in the NCAA tournament that they didn't deserve.
A week later, George Mason is the focus of attention for a different reason. The Patriots, who entered this year's event winless in three previous opportunities, have knocked off two of the game's more storied programs -- Michigan State on Friday night followed by North Carolina on Sunday -- to advance to the round of 16.
Sunday's 65-60 victory over defending champion North Carolina -- a school with twice as many national titles, four, as George Mason has tournament victories -- is the biggest athletic accomplishment for the Fairfax commuter school and no doubt sent the brackets of many office pool players into the shredder.
Hours later, Georgetown beat second-seeded Ohio State to join George Mason in the round of 16, but the Hoyas' victory, while a mild upset, does not carry the same shock value as the Patriots' feat.
Because George Mason plays in the Colonial Athletic Association, its basketball team is considered a "mid-major," a euphemism for minor league. Duke, Maryland and Georgetown are major teams, the big leagues. And nobody is more big league than North Carolina, which has given the basketball world hoop gods from its former coach, Dean Smith, to NBA legend Michael Jordan. George Mason, with 29,600 students, isn't the little school from Fairfax some might think, but in terms of basketball pedigree, David slew Goliath here Sunday.
As a result, David now gets to come home. While Georgetown will travel to Minneapolis to play Florida, George Mason will next face Wichita State in the Washington Region semifinals, which begin Friday at Verizon Center.
"Being in the Sweet 16 is fantastic," George Mason President Alan G. Merten said. "But being at home to play the game is unbelievable. When I walked off the court, people were asking me for tickets. I have friends now I didn't know I had."
Should George Mason win Friday and play on Sunday for the right to go to the Final Four, Merten will have relatives he never knew he had, as well.
Sunday's upset did not come easily. The Patriots fell behind 16-2 in the game's opening minutes, and the contingent of fans from Fairfax, which appeared to be about 1,000 strong, was mostly silent.
The comeback began with Tony Skinn's unlikely three-point shot, which banked in off the backboard from about 30 feet away with the shot clock about to expire early in the first half with the Partiots down 16-2.
"I didn't really think that I even had a shot," Skinn said.
From there, the Patriots seemed to breathe a sigh of relief and jump right into the game plan of driving the Tar Heels deep into frustration with their withering defense. George Mason turned a 27-20 halftime deficit into a 28-27 lead by forcing North Carolina to commit six turnovers on its first seven possessions of the second half.
From there, North Carolina led only once again, at 51-50.
The first two rounds of this NCAA tournament have been, in large part, a referendum on whether "mid-majors" such as George Mason and Bradley and Wichita State of the Missouri Valley Conference were awarded too many spots in this tournament that should have been awarded to the traditional power leagues such as the Big East, Big Ten and Atlantic Coast Conference. Packer led a chorus of those who said the national championship should be contested primarily by representatives of the big leagues, who draw their players from upper echelons of high school talent.
George Mason's team comprises mostly players from Maryland high schools who, for one reason or another, did not garner the attention of schools like the two whose seasons the Patriots ended over the past three days.
The win over North Carolina, which started with the three-pointer from Skinn, was preserved by outstanding shooting performances from sophomore Folarin Campbell of Silver Spring (Springbrook High School) and Lamar Butler from Fort Washington (Oxon Hill High). They complemented the strong inside play of 6-foot-7, 275-pound forward Jai Lewis from Aberdeen, Md., and 6-7 Will Thomas of Baltimore.
"We have a lot of people on this team that came from big-time high school programs but were too small in the big-time [college programs]," Skinn said. "Coach [Jim] Larranaga saw something in us and said, 'Hey, come play at my school.' We just worked so hard, day in and day out, fighting each other literally. . . . The victory we got today, we deserved it so much."
In the process, the Patriots won plenty of converts and will be discussed this week for their attributes rather than their shortcomings.
"We congratulate George Mason," North Carolina Coach Roy Williams said. "That's what makes this tournament, in my opinion, the greatest sporting event there is. For George Mason to come in and nobody probably thought they could beat Michigan State and North Carolina back-to-back, but that's college basketball."