For most teams that fail to secure an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament, the days, hours and minutes leading to the selection announcement is awash in anxiety and mind games.
But when George Mason’s players filed into Johnson Center late Sunday afternoon, a sense of eagerness superseded unease. Despite an unceremonious dismissal from the Colonial Athletic Association event a week earlier, the Patriots were supremely confident that four extraordinary months of basketball would earn them one of the 37 at-large invitations.
They didn’t have to wait long to learn their efforts had been validated.
With a few hundred supporters gathered in the three-story atrium in the heart of the Fairfax campus, the Patriots heard their name called almost right away as the No. 8 seed in a East Region headed by Ohio State, the tournament’s top overall entry.
“I don’t think we were too worried about getting in,” junior forward Mike Morrison said. “We earned our way in. We belong here.”
The Patriots’ portfolio was impressive: They won the CAA’s regular season title by two games, ran off 16 consecutive victories late in the campaign, won eight in a row on the road to set a program record and boasted 20 victories by 10 points or more.
They lacked a signature nonconference win but didn’t suffer any horrible losses: to the ACC’s North Carolina State, Southern Conference champion Wofford, Atlantic 10 runner-up Dayton, Hofstra (21-11), Virginia Commonwealth (23-11) and Old Dominion (27-6).
The Patriots, who enjoyed the finest regular season in the program’s 44-year history, were rewarded with the highest seed in their six all-time NCAA appearances. In 2006, when they made their improbable Final Four run, they were in the No. 11 slot.
Mason is in the highest position by a CAA representative since David Robinson and Navy entered at No. 7 25 years ago and advanced to the East Region final.
“In listening to all the prognosticators, you start to develop a mind-set that, ‘Man, we could be a top-eight seed,’ ” said Coach Jim Larranaga, who has guided the Patriots to five NCAA appearances in 14 seasons. “To actually end up earning that, it’s a special achievement for these guys, something they’ll never forget.”
The CAA, as a whole, won’t forget it either after earning three berths for the first time and two top-10 seeds for the first time.
CAA champion ODU is at No. 9 and will play eighth-seeded Butler, the 2010 national runner-up, Thursday at Verizon Center. VCU, which defeated UCLA, George Mason and ODU, was among the final teams to earn an at-large berth.
The Rams, who ousted George Mason in the CAA semifinals last weekend in Richmond, will play Southern California in a first-round game between No. 11 seeds Wednesday in Dayton, with the winner facing sixth-seeded Georgetown in Chicago.
Despite Selection Sunday falling on the first weekend of GMU’s spring break, students and alumni gathered with the Green Machine pep band, cheerleaders and dancers. Larranaga led the pre-show festivities by introducing the players and staff, who tossed T-shirts into the crowd, which was clad predominantly in green and gold. Isaiah Tate, one of the team’s two seniors, addressed the fans.
While the possible meeting with Ohio State drew some gasps, the pairing with Villanova was welcomed.
The Wildcats, who began the season with 16 wins in 17 games to rise to No. 7 in the national rankings, have lost five straight and were upset by South Florida in the first round of the Big East tournament.
Nevertheless, “They play in the best conference in the country and they’re tournament-tested,” Larranaga said. “We know it’s a major challenge.”
George Mason has never beaten Villanova in four all-time meetings, but when they faced one another early last season at a tournament in Puerto Rico, the Patriots built a 13-point lead before dropping a 69-68 decision on Isaiah Armwood’s three-pointer with 13 seconds left.
“It was a great game and we’re excited to play them again,” sophomore guard Luke Hancock said. “This is where we want to be. We have to put everything else behind us now. We’re moving on to bigger things.”