One for the History Books

By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, March 28, 2006

George Mason's trip to the Final Four in the last two weeks is the greatest underdog feat in the history of Washington sports. And its victory Sunday over Connecticut is the single most stunning upset win by any team in this area -- ever.

There have been greater achievements. As wonderful as reaching the Final Four may be, it's not the same as winning the Super Bowl, the World Series, the NBA title or the NCAA basketball championship, all of which have been done by local teams. Of course, if George Mason wins two more games, all that will have to be reevaluated, too.

However, for shock impact, for underdog glory and for the inspirational value of watching perfect team play, George Mason has already knocked the socks off anything that has happened around here in the last 50 years. I've been a Washington sports fanatic since the '50s as a kid and worked in the Post's sports department since 1970. In my book, nothing's close. How about the decades before that? If anything was comparable, Shirley Povich would have handed down the tales. And he didn't.

When you try to find anything that rivals what the Patriots have already done, you just end up laughing. When the Redskins, Bullets, Hoyas and Terrapins won their titles, they were already recognized powerhouses. Local teams in more obscure sports did not face the level of competition that George Mason has met in an event filled with future NBA pros. Even the local athletes in individual sports who became champions in golf, tennis, boxing and various Olympic sports were on the national or world radar screen when they made their mark.

George Mason's athletic obscurity -- despite the school's size (more students than the University of Virginia) -- is at the core of these Patriot games. There must be a million Washington fans who can name 100 current local pro and major college athletes but couldn't name one person who had ever played for George Mason. Count me, too. Now we all go six deep, right?

Mason's following is now huge. None of us has any business on this train. But Coach Jim Larranaga and smiling Lamar Butler look like nice guys. They wouldn't let 275-pound Jai Lewis throw us off the caboose, would they?

If Mason still has one advantage, it's that the team has barely been examined except as a human-interest story. You would think a team with two 6-foot-7 big men surrounded by three smallish guards would cry out for hoop analysis. How do they do it?

First, George Mason spends far more energy in its (usually zone) defense than it does on offense. Every interior pass is contested. The team's two 6-7 players, Lewis and Will Thomas, seldom foul. They influence shots but seldom block them. Many assume foul trouble for either will doom Mason. Yet, so far, they've barely taken a foolish foul. That has to continue.

George Mason's defense, especially the sagging help from the three perimeter players, has been so strong inside that its opponents, all far bigger teams, have been reduced to shooting far more three-pointers than the Patriots: 102 to 62. The underdog is supposed to survive by (the luck of) hot shooting. Instead, Mason has demoralized the inside players from Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut from attacking the rim. The Patriots' quick guards even get back out to the arc in time to contest most three-point shots (opponents make 29 percent).

In contrast, George Mason constantly pounds the ball inside to Lewis, with his bump-and-grind game, and Thomas, with his quick left-handed hooks. The patient Patriots actually rest at times on offense, spreading the floor with perfect veteran spacing, then playing three-man games on one side. It's on defense that they never slack off.

Luck has played no part in George Mason's wins. Michigan State looked completely confused and defeated by the end. Carolina Coach Roy Williams got so disgusted he heaved a folding chair. (If Bobby Knight had done it, he'd be in chains now.) Williams had been so outcoached he had no answers at either end of the court. Hence, coaching by chair toss. As for Wichita State, George Mason just thumped themsoundly. The relatively close 63-55 score was a fluke of late-game Shocker treys.

Most impressively, Mason beat Connecticut twice. Only a desperate layup that bounced on the rim three times saved the Huskies in regulation. In overtime, Mason was precise, calm and focused when it should have been rattled and beaten. That's Larranaga. Meantime, the worried Huskies, who jacked up five overtime treys and missed them all, were too busy bickering with each other to concentrate on advancing. No doubt Jim Calhoun has some swellheads. But overtime for a spot in the Final Four is a coach's final exam. Calhoun flunked.

George Mason will arrive at the Final Four with its mystery intact. So far in the NCAAs, who leads the team in steals? Not a guard, but the 275-pound Lewis. It's Thomas, not the intimidating Lewis, who has led the team in rebounds. Who leads in blocked shots? Not the high-flying Thomas but the sixth man Gabe Norwood. Who leads in assists? Not the fine point guard Tony Skinn (only three turnovers in 95 minutes), but swingman Folarin Campbell. No wonder opponents are confused.

Everything George Mason appears to be, it isn't. You assume you can out-rebound the Patriots, but they hold a 158-148 edge over four of the biggest teams in the country. You'd think, like scrawny underdogs, they'd settle for three-pointers. But they pound the ball into both posts, then look outside once they've established the inside. They move through their half-court offense far more quickly and decisively than anyone they've played. Against huge but passive Connecticut, George Mason scored 86 points and ripped through its offensive options as easily as if it were playing Hofstra. Sorry -- Hofstra beat George Mason twice, by a total of 20 points, in two of its last four pre-NCAA games.

This season, George Mason also lost to Wake Forest, Creighton (by 20), Old Dominion, Mississippi State and UNC Wilmington. Somebody in Indianapolis better grab those game tapes and start taking this team seriously. It's the George Mason paradox: There are obviously ways to beat them, just not obvious ways.

If George Mason keeps playing the way it has the last two weeks, the Patriots are not a significant underdog to anybody in this Final Four. Long shots, sure. Outclassed? No way.

Whatever happens in Indy, George Mason deserves full credit for what it has done so far. The Patriots have not reached the Final Four with lucky last-second shots, bad referees' calls, injuries to opponents or a weak draw. This hasn't been fate or fluke. The most miraculous series of upsets by any team in Washington history has been David vs. Goliath, but with a twist.

This time, David walked right up to the giants -- four of them -- and knocked them out with left hooks and uppercuts.

Not a sneaky slingshot in sight.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company