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Patriots Have Mid-Level Programs Striving Higher

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."

Added Georgia State Coach Michael Perry: "I don't know if there are any administrators out there who are thinking that way, but I do pray for the coaches who are in situations like that."

George Mason's exploits have had a profound impact on the perception of teams in second-tier conferences, such as the Missouri Valley, Mid-American and, most significantly, the CAA. Last season four CAA teams went to postseason tournaments -- Mason and UNCW to the NCAA, Hofstra and Old Dominion to the National Invitation Tournament -- and league coaches are hoping the CAA has reached a point where that has become the norm.

For a team like Georgia State, which moved to the CAA from the Atlantic Sun last year, the challenge to make an impression nationally has become secondary to becoming competitive in an emerging conference.

"The mission is always going to be get into the top third of this league because the top of this league is going to get into the postseason," said Perry, whose team took George Mason to overtime before losing in the CAA quarterfinals in March.

For teams that do make the NCAA tournament, the expectation might shift.

"It used to be just getting there was okay, but that mentality has changed," UNCW's Moss said. "It's about winning a game."

Women's programs are feeling the impact, too.

"Mason has not only given hope to everyone in the conference, but every mid-major in the country, men or women," James Madison women's coach Kenny Brooks said. "We definitely use it as motivation. And it hit home. It wasn't some team out in California; it's a school near us.

"We hear James Mason and George Madison, but, hey, that's recognition. I think we've all benefited from it."

By the time March rolls around, though, the tournament's rigors will remind everyone of the challenges confronting every mid-sized program with oversized dreams.

"What George Mason accomplished tells you that you always have a chance," said George Washington vice president Bob Chernak, who oversees athletics at the school. "You also have to be reasonable. The goal will always be to get to the tournament. Anything after that is gravy."

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