How They Got Here: No. 11 Seed George Mason (Washington Region)'s Bryan Graham traces the dance steps of one of the greatest Cinderella stories in NCAA history

March 31, 2006



By Bryan Armen Graham

Assistant Editor,



Bryan is a basketball editor for and contributes on a regular weekly basis.
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The Patriots are more than college basketball's best Cinderella story in years -- they also happen to be a darn good basketball team.


After coasting under the radar for most of the season as a member of the oft-overlooked Colonial Athletic Association, Jim Larranaga's club flipped the switch during its history-making run to the Final Four -- and finds itself peaking at the right time. As a result, the Fairfax, Va., school is the first team in the history of the CAA to advance to the national semifinals.


Where other far-advancing underdogs from NCAA Tournament lore have been known for their gimmicky strategies and approaches -- like Princeton's methodical offense under Pete Carril or Loyola Marymount's run-and-gun approach under Paul Westhead -- there's no mysterious secret to how George Mason has engineered upset after upset.


On offense, the Patriots spread the wealth through a balanced attack -- five different players average 11 points or more. Jai Lewis and Will Thomas, a pair of 6-foot-7 forwards, are adequate options in the frontcourt. Each has a serviceable variety of low post moves -- but their outstanding passing abilities force opponents to play them one-on-one. Several times following his side's stunning upset loss, Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun told reporters how he wanted to double-team Mason's big men -- but sure-shooting perimeter players like Lamar Butler, Folarin Campbell and Tony Skinn make the proposition too risky.


On the other side of the ball, George Mason's field-goal percentage defense ranks among the 10 best figures in Division I, as the Patriots surrender just 38.7 percent shooting.


Depth is a perceived weakness. But Mason's modest rotation demonstrated its conditioning by hanging with the Huskies for 45 minutes -- its second game in under 41 hours. And as the Patriots have developed into such sound defenders, their players rarely find themselves in trouble with fouls.


Highest High: Will there ever be a bigger victory in the history of George Mason athletics than the team's 86-84 overtime victory over Connecticut at the Verizon Center on Sunday? Stay tuned this weekend and find out.


Lowest Low: The story of the year in college basketball almost wasn't. An ignominious 58-49 loss to Hofstra in the semifinals of the CAA Tournament on Mar. 5 placed George Mason squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble. Playing against the Pride's six-man rotation (and sixth man Greg Johnson logged just eight minutes), the Patriots managed to connect on just 32.7 percent of their attempts from the floor. And just like that, the fate of Larranaga's team was placed into the hands of the Selection Committee.


Biggest Shot: Holding a tenuous 82-80 lead over UConn in the Regional Finals, Mason took over possession with the chance to put the Huskies on the ropes. Campbell's difficult jumper from the baseline did just that -- doubling the Mason advantage and igniting the partisan GMU crowd.


X-Factor: Gabe Norwood has embraced the role of reserve and spot starter during his team's run to Indianapolis. With each George Mason starter averaging upwards of 31 minutes played, Larranaga's club doesn't get a ton of contribution from its bench -- but Norwood has averaged 3.4 points, 2.0 rebounds and 1.9 assists in 20.9 minutes as a substitute. Against the types of thoroughbred athletes Florida, LSU and UCLA bring to the table, Norwood's presence could become more important than usual.


Why They Can Win It All: That's some balance Larranaga has struck with this bunch. While the 56-year-old coach has his charges believing that they can beat anybody (as their resilience against top-seeded Connecticut would indicate), Larranaga has the Patriots rolling into Indy with the relaxed confidence of a group playing with house money -- a team that's not supposed to be here.


Deserving Mention: Ironically, the most unlikely national semifinalist of the Final Four needed the least luck to get to Indianapolis. Louisiana State needed Darrel Mitchell's three-pointer with 3.9 seconds remaining in a second-round battle with Texas A&M to escape with a 58-57 victory. UCLA trailed by 17 points in the first half -- and by nine with three minutes to go -- before scoring 11 unanswered points to bounce Gonzaga from the Sweet Sixteen. Florida might have been eliminated by Georgetown in the second round if Darrell Owens hadn't missed a wide-open look from three-point range that would have given the Hoyas the lead with seven seconds remaining.

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