Who'll Be the Next Mason?

Coach Jim Larranaga almost took Folarin Campbell and George Mason to another NCAA tournament berth on Monday.
Coach Jim Larranaga almost took Folarin Campbell and George Mason to another NCAA tournament berth on Monday. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
By Michael Wilbon
Wednesday, March 7, 2007

It's become the coolest week of March, in some ways more irresistible than the Final Four itself. Just as it was in high school, the anticipation of the Big Dance is often better than the dance itself. Not that the NCAA tournament is likely to disappoint; it hardly ever does, especially those first two days when scores pour in from eight sites, sort of like election results from all over the country.

Still, this "Championship Week" has become perhaps the best appetizer in sports, a week filled with the same dramatically desperate basketball that has made the rest of March famous, and yet with a touch of athletic innocence the power conferences haven't had in decades.

At the center of all this good feeling is the search for Cinderella, a team from some one-bid league that could upset some snotty blue blood in the first round or at least make one of the royals sweat. And this "Championship Week" has taken on a new significance because we're all looking for the next George Mason, an afterthought team at the beginning of the month that not only is capable of busting up brackets by scoring one upset, but holding our attention for the full month and putting real madness into March.

Who knew George Mason had a chance to be the new George Mason? It was as if the Patriots, having gotten all the way to the Final Four last year, were defending something, some mythical crown representing all the schools that can't ever get a home game from teams in the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC and Pac-10; who have to fight each other for a handful of lousy spots in the Big Dance while coaches from the big leagues lobby to get eight or nine of their teams in.

Up five, with the ball, two minutes left -- it certainly looked as if the slipper still fit, that George Mason was going back to defend the honor of mid-majors everywhere. But two bad turnovers and a couple of bricks later, Mason was out, a very deserving 27-6 Virginia Commonwealth team was in and we were searching for a new David.

Could it be Winthrop of the Big South, or Niagara of the Metro Atlantic?

Maybe it'll be Davidson of the Southern Conference, a team Lefty Driesell took to the region final eons ago. Belmont won the Atlantic Sun Conference and an automatic bid. Butler or Wright State will win the Horizon and qualify for the NCAAs. Maybe North Texas will storm out of the Sun Belt.

You can be an extreme cynic like Kornheiser, who says, "Because of George Mason last March, there won't be and can't be another George Mason this March." Of course, Kornheiser, who has lived his entire life where the Big East plays, speaks for power-conference coaches everywhere who, as basketball Goliaths, cringe at the notion of another David. To them, George Mason was a one-time lightning strike, not hard evidence of an evolutionary change in college basketball. These are the same people who weren't paying attention two months ago when Boise State topped Oklahoma in college football, where it's infinitely more difficult to score an upset than in college basketball.

People who are actually paying attention, who don't turn off the TV because Creighton is playing or scoff at the polls because Southern Illinois is ranked 13th and has had a RPI as high as No. 4, understand that because of what George Mason did last year, it's increasingly likely that mid-majors will have a similar impact on at least the early rounds this year and moving forward. Nobody's predicting a mid-major team will sweep through to the Final Four again.

As ESPN analyst Jay Bilas pointed out recently, while most mid-majors are loaded with good perimeter players but size-challenged, Mason had bigs last year who could score in the post, defend in the post and pass out of the post. There are power conference teams that don't have players who can do that, but Mason did in Jai Lewis and Will Thomas.

Still, what conveys from last year's Mason run is a certain boldness the mid-majors have. Not only are they unafraid of the big conference teams, they can't wait to play them. The mid-majors are close and they know it.

Mason wasn't a Disney movie to them; Mason was proof.

Appalachian State of the Southern Conference lost at Clemson, Wake Forest and Virginia Tech, but beat Virginia, Vanderbilt (which beat Florida), Wichita State, the aforementioned Virginia Commonwealth and Davidson, which won the league's automatic bid. The Mountaineers lost in the Southern Conference semis, but had won eight straight and 12 of 13.

Appalachian State ought to be in the tournament. The Southern Conference, if its teams were treated fairly and seeded fairly, could be to this March what the CAA was to last March. I'd certainly prefer to see Appalachian State get an at-large bid than the eighth- or ninth-place team in the ACC.

And nobody, no matter how lordly a league they play in, wants to play Winthrop of the Big South. You don't have to know the stats of its best players (Craig Bradshaw and Torrell Martin), you only have to know that Winthrop lost to North Carolina by seven on a neutral court, by 11 at 20th-ranked Maryland, in overtime at fourth-ranked Wisconsin and at seventh-ranked Texas A&M. How did they do against everybody else? Undefeated, 28-0. None of those schools would dare travel to Winthrop and play in the regular season.

Butler can't be Cinderella because at 27-6 and ranked in everybody's top 20, Butler is a known quantity. Same goes for Southern Illinois, Air Force and Nevada.

But a legit pick would be Davidson, which has won 25 of 26, or Drexel, which has battled to 21-7. Maybe West Coast Conference champ Gonzaga, now that it doesn't have a glamorous player, qualifies once again as a Cinderella candidate. And Virginia Commonwealth has those 27 victories and a coach, Anthony Grant, who might have brought some magic from Florida, where he was an assistant coach with the champs last season.

Still, the power conferences will be awarded all the top seeds, even in a year when none of the traditional powers seem particularly impressive. Teams with five and six losses will be in the running for a No. 1 seed when the tournament field is announced Sunday. And the teams that had to battle their way through, from leagues with one bid, two at the most, will lie waiting in the weeds, more confident than ever that knocking off one or more of the big boys in the NCAA tournament is within their power.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company