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The Story Everybody Wanted, but Not Quite the Ending

By Mike Wise
Sunday, April 2, 2006

INDIANAPOLIS Jim Larranaga sent the five substitutes in with 47 seconds left. These were players who don't play the big minutes for George Mason, the kids the coach put in more for posterity's sake than anything that would affect the outcome of a national semifinal.

He wanted them to experience the end of the most shocking, small-program run in NCAA tournament history:

Florida 73, Hickory High 58.

Dies the season. Dies the dream to play for the national championship Monday night. The best little team you never saw until March finally went down to a bigger, talented, tradition-steeped powerhouse. It took three weeks before someone could do in the Cinderella Men.

"Whenever you talk about the Final Four, you have to mention us," said Lamar Butler, the senior guard who, for once in a month, was more somber than smiling after Saturday night's loss at the RCA Dome. "This is history. We changed the face of college basketball."

To a nation starved for a "Hoosiers" ending, Lee Humphrey's three three-pointers to begin the second half were just a buzz-kill -- a good, bedtime tale gone awry. Snow White, backhanded by Sleepy. Or 101 Dalmatians, stuck in the D.C. Animal Shelter. Nemo, served a la carte at Sushi Taro. You thought, what kind of ending was this for college basketball's best yarn?

But that's missing the long view.

See, Mason became less of a team than an ideal in March, the notion that five kids from anywhere can call "Next" and hold the court against anyone at any time. Butler, Folarin Campbell, Jai Lewis and their teammates were not a part of March Madness as much as they were a blueprint for How to See Yourself as a Powerhouse and Not a Mid-Major Pushover.

"We never saw ourselves as the underdog," Butler said. "That's the thing everybody got wrong; we saw everybody we beat as being in trouble once they faced us."

The whole month of Mason bordered on fantasy, and there was a part of the country that must have awoke this morning and thought CBS was pulling the ultimate April Fools' gag.

In the days leading up to Selection Sunday, most every national college hoop analyst decried the notion of the Patriots even getting in -- especially after Hofstra beat them twice in the season's final weeks. Among the lot that felt Mason did not belong among the 65-team field: ESPN's Jay Bilas, Digger Phelps and Dick Vitale.

Yet there was Bilas on Saturday morning, running a TV demonstration with faux players, breaking down -- get this -- George Mason's offense. Digger and Dickie V. were contorting their faces, saying what they would say in a pregame speech to Mason's players if they were their coach. Bilas has said often this week Mason's run is really "lightning in a bottle," and all the factors fell into place for such magic and chemistry to unfold game after game.

He may be right. Michigan State underachieved all year. North Carolina was young, probably still a year away from contending. Wichita State was on borrowed, mid-major time. U-Conn. was easily the best collection of players in the tournament. But the Huskies were all size and talent, not enough heart.

But he may be wrong, too. As more traditional powers lose their kids early to the draft -- Carmelo Anthony would have been a senior this season, by the way -- and more mentally tough 22-year-olds stick around for their junior and senior years at Mason and other small programs, this may not be the last time we see the likes of this.

Either way, with the changes in the game and its economics, Mason's achievement is singularly the greatest journey by a non-power school in tourney history.

Unlike in the early 1980s, Duke, Carolina, Kentucky and others are multinational conglomerates more than college-hoop factories today, armed with finances and facilities most schools will never have or see.

The great upsets of more than 20 years ago would not have happened with a shot clock. N.C. State over Houston in 1983 and Villanova over Georgetown in 1985 had as much to do with game management as it did marksmanship and resolve on both ends.

Mason took care of the ball the last three weekends, but the Patriots also outwilled and outplayed their opponents. That just doesn't happen with kids recruited by primarily small schools. Maybe in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament. Not in the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament.

But then, what's that saying the Mason masses have been using all month long: "Can't spell NCAA without CAA." They were right. They just ran into one longer, bigger team too many on Saturday night.

The truth is, Florida was here for all the big schools that couldn't beat Mason. Tom Izzo, Roy Williams and Jim Calhoun should send Billy Donovan a thank you letter. His team killed a good fairy tale, but it restored order to a galaxy turned on its ear by these young, impressionable, good-natured ballplayers out of Fairfax.

Most memorable Mason moment: It came in the tunnel leading to the Verizon Center court before the U-Conn. game. The U-Conn. players had already gone when the Mason kids walked out of their locker room and through a gantlet of security guards who were living vicariously through these homegrown Maryland and Virginia kids. Having got to know some of them over the past couple of years, they had dreams, too, of going to next level and not all of them got a break in recruiting or scholarship offers, either. They were George Mason that day.

"They nodded," Butler said. "They couldn't say too much, but some of them made their feelings known."

"Good luck," the men in the blue windbreakers said, shaking the kids' hands. "Good luck." One security guard near the court, Butler remembered, was more than effusive.

"Kick their asses," he said, firmly.

And they did, knocking off a two-time national champion to experience Saturday night and this weekend.

"We had the smallest people on the social ladder in this country all pulling for us," Butler said. "Most of them never heard of George Mason, but once they heard of our story they wanted us to win. Everywhere we went."

Butler's smile was suddenly back, thinking of that walk through the tunnel last week in Washington:

"We were the kids from the ordinary schools whose heart you couldn't measure," he said.

They were George Mason, now as much an ideal as a school.

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