Winning Ticket: No. 11

By Mike Wise
Saturday, March 25, 2006

Tony Skinn does not want to look too far ahead. But the senior guard does have one small request before he and his George Mason teammates play a who-would-have-thought region final at home tomorrow afternoon:

"If they make a movie about us, I want to play my own part," Skinn said.

What about Will Thomas, the sophomore forward with the babykins smile and the radar jump hook?

"Chris Tucker, man," Skinn said.

It has come to this.

The round of 16 is a defining junction in the NCAA tournament, the point at which the Little Teams That Could just can't anymore. With very few exceptions the past three decades, it's a mausoleum for giant-killers.

Wisconsin-Milwaukee was a nice little story last year until Illinois ruined the ride. Nevada shocked the field in 2004 before Georgia Tech blew away the pixie dust.

You learn about these kids who never had Roy Williams or Tubby Smith visit their living rooms as 17 years old, you get to know them and their resilient stories for a minute, and then it's over.

Back to class. Back to reality.

Within days, they usually admit they had U-Conn. and Duke in their bracket, too. Their one shining moment gets encapsulated in two celluloid seconds after the national champion is crowned, and the people at home blurt, "That Valpo kid's shot was so clutch" or "Damn, Southern Illinois could play," and Hoops Nation moves on, toward the final scene of some lottery pick from Syracuse or North Carolina cutting nylon and smiling.

Except that with less than 10 days left in the college basketball season, that perma-grin kid was Lamar Butler last night, the George Mason senior guard who held up eight fingers for all of America and the throaty roar of a public university in Fairfax to see.

"ELITE EIGHT!" Butler screamed. "ELITE EIGHT!"


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