THREE WEEKS AGO the only serious attention being paid to George Mason University's basketball team at the national level was coming from those who didn't think it deserved to be among the 65 teams chosen for the NCAA tournament. To be sure, the Patriots had a pretty good record, but after all, they played in something called the Colonial Athletic Association -- not exactly the sort of conference to consort with the Big Ten, the Atlantic Coast Conference or the Big East.
Closer to home, though, area sports fans were following a little drama that indicated something special might be coming from the Fairfax County campus. It concerned George Mason Coach Jim Larranaga. (You there, with that face painted gold and green -- be honest; had you ever heard of Jim Larranaga before this month?) In George Mason's last game before the NCAA tournament, a losing effort against Hofstra University, George Mason guard Tony Skinn delivered a below-the-belt punch to an opposing player. After Mr. Larranaga watched the tape of the incident, he ordered that Mr. Skinn, an important player for George Mason, sit out the next game. Nobody told the coach to do this; he just thought it was what had to be done.
As it turned out, the next game was the first round of the NCAA tournament, and, to the surprise of just about everyone on Earth, George Mason won it. Two days later, with a chastened Mr. Skinn back on the court and sinking two big free throws in the final seconds, the Patriots upset North Carolina. And this past weekend, as you may have noticed, they won a couple more games.
Many colleges that have success in major sports such as basketball say that it improves the educational quality of their institutions, because the publicity draws more applicants and allows them to be more selective. George Mason, with a couple of Nobels to its faculty's credit, already has a strong academic reputation. But the success of Jim Larranaga and of the unsung, unflappable, somewhat under-recruited bunch of guys he has brought together, mostly from Washington area high schools, shows that some important learning really does go on right out on the court. This is a team that has, under a very good teacher, learned what it means to stick to your principles, work to your limits, and believe in yourself and your teammates.
Next week it's the Final Four for the George Mason men. Along with the University of Maryland women and two other men's teams, George Washington University and Georgetown University, that made it into the NCAA tournament this year and then won a few, they've put a good face on college basketball in the Washington area.