Patriots Have Mid-Level Programs Striving Higher

george mason university fan
The stunning run of George Mason to last season's Final Four has given hope to fans like freshman Krista Muise of Boston, above, and students, coaches and players at mid-major programs across the United States. (Kevin Wolf - AP)

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By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 6, 2006

It's all Jim Larranaga's fault.

"I'll take full responsibility," he said, laughing.

Were it not for his pesky George Mason Patriots and their improbable trip to the Final Four last spring, mid-level college basketball teams from coast to coast would welcome another new season this week with humble ambitions of winning 20 games, reaching the NCAA tournament, maybe pulling off an upset and stepping into the national spotlight for one weekend.

Realistic goals such as these had kept the student body interested, alumni content and potential recruits intrigued over the years.

Then along came George Mason, an almost anonymous program from a mostly anonymous conference, and everything changed.

By beating Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and Connecticut and crashing a Final Four party opened almost exclusively to the sport's monster programs, the Patriots have perhaps altered the definition of success and heightened expectations for the so-called mid-majors.

"In our fans' minds, that could be us," said Benny Moss, the first-year coach at North Carolina Wilmington, one of George Mason's rivals in the Colonial Athletic Association. "It's given us all a dream that we can do it, too."

The Patriots' success was not unprecedented among teams from smaller conferences. Penn and Indiana State went to the 1979 Final Four, and bulked-up programs at Cincinnati and Massachusetts have been there since.

Many programs can relate to George Mason more than its predecessors because the Patriots did it without a glamorous basketball history and without a high-profile player. After receiving a controversial at-large berth in the NCAA tournament, they won games with fundamentally solid basketball and rode the momentum all the way to Indianapolis before losing to eventual champion Florida in the semifinals.

"I hope coaches and players around the country will look at what we did and say, 'If they can do it, we can do it,' " Larranaga said. "But that's not the way I want administrators and alumni and fans to look at it. Because all of a sudden, that takes the pressure and puts it on the players who may or may not be able to handle it at this point."

Hofstra Coach Tom Pecora, whose team felt it should have gotten the bid that George Mason received after beating the Patriots twice last season, echoed Larranaga's cautionary tone.

Asked if he thought administrators at mid-major programs now expect Mason's success to be immediately replicated, Pecora said: "I would hope gentlemen as intellectual as presidents of universities understand how difficult this process is. Getting to the Final Four is not that easy for any school."

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