More non-I-A football schools have Final Four chance

Originally Published: March 20, 2006
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

As late Sunday climbed into early Monday, George Mason coach Jim Larranaga's voice sounded fatigued and drained.

Larranaga had just come from a welcome-home gathering he estimated had about 2,000 loyal Patriots fans in attendance. They had come to greet the conquering players and staff after George Mason dethroned defending champion North Carolina in Dayton earlier in the day.

Larranaga hadn't seen George Mason's campus like this before.

Monday was scheduled as an off day for his players, but Larranaga knew he would be spending the bulk of his day doing media interviews. His counterpart, Wichita State coach Mark Turgeon, had said Saturday that he expected this week to be like no other and that already he was trying to determine how he was going to handle the media onslaught.

Ahh, the Sweet 16, where mid-major programs come to get their 15 minutes of fame, only to be swept out before serious stuff starts happening in the Final Four.

This is the type of furor that happens when a mid-major reaches a regional. And you wonder why the sport hasn't had a team from a conference that doesn't play Division I-A football in the Final Four since UMass in 1996? (Marquette, a non-football-playing member of Conference USA at the time, made it in 2003.)

This year could be different, though. First off, we're guaranteed to have a mid-major in the Elite Eight, with the George Mason-Wichita State winner set to face either Connecticut or Washington in D.C. for the chance to dance in Indy.

If we keep it along I-A football lines, we also can include Gonzaga. With Bradley around, as well, that means there are four teams that don't play major college football that still have a shot to get to the Final Four -- and that doesn't include Villanova (a I-AA football school) from the Big East.

A year ago, there was one non-I-A school in the Sweet 16 -- Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Two years ago, there were two -- Saint Joseph's and Xavier (both got to the Elite Eight). Three years ago, there also were two -- Butler and Marquette.

So, for these schools -- the ones that don't have major football either in their league or on their campus -- the question has been why have they been able to win two games, but not the two more that would get them to the sport's ultimate destination?

"There are so many more high-major teams in the tournament, so that even when a high-major loses, there's still 22 others carrying the flag," Larranaga said. "Normally, there are only four to six mid-major programs that get into the tournament [as at-large teams]. Most of them are playing someone great, so they're not getting in."

Larranaga cited his 2001 George Mason team -- the school's most recent entrant into the NCAAs before this season. The Patriots were a No. 14 seed and played Maryland in Boise. They lost by three.

"We lost to a team that went to the Final Four, and we had the lead with one minute left," Larranaga said. "They won the championship the next year. You [the mid-major] end up getting the best teams."

The NCAA Tournament selection committee has pitted some of these folks against each other, too, thus diminishing the chances for more than one to sneak into the Sweet 16 or even the second round. In 2003, No. 6 Creighton faced No. 11 Central Michigan. CMU won but then had to face Duke in the second round and was eliminated.

"It's hard to win four games, hard for anybody," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "Statistically, those [other conferences] have more teams. That's why there are more of the football schools in the Final Four."

Turgeon said after Saturday's win over Tennessee that reaching the Sweet 16 was like the Final Four at his level. He was implying that now he could walk into one of the elite sneaker camps in the summer and stick his chest out a bit, that he might be able to recruit a higher-level player than in the past.

Larranaga said Turgeon might rethink that statement now that he has a shot to get to the Elite Eight by playing another team at his level, a team he already lost to on his home court in February's BracketBusters event.

Still, no one seems to disagree that it's different reaching this second weekend and all the attention it receives nationally. Sure, there is more when you reach the Final Four, but this week still allows the mid-major, non-major-college-football power a stage.

Al Skinner -- who has Boston College in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1994, when the Eagles went under Jim O'Brien -- can relate to the mid-major mantra of reaching the Sweet 16 as the pinnacle.

"When I was at Rhode Island, we felt like that," Skinner said. "At that level, the Sweet 16 is a big deal."

Even for some high-major teams that aren't used to this, you would think that would be the case. For at least two of those teams this season though, it doesn't appear to be.

"If this had happened in 2001, it would have been a big deal," Skinner said of when the Eagles lost to USC in the second round after reaching the NCAAs for the first time since 1997. "But this group is in a different place. We've got enough experience and talent to [move on]."

Meanwhile, LSU coach John Brady expected his underclassman-dominated team to be almost too giddy Sunday after its last-second win over Texas A&M that sent the Tigers to Atlanta.

Instead, Brady said Tyrus Thomas called him up hoping Brady would sign off on Thomas' and Glen Davis' living off campus next season.

"We're playing Duke in the Sweet 16 in Atlanta, and that's the question I get?" Brady said. "I just said, 'Let's come to practice and be prepared to beat Duke, and we can work all that out later. But that's my team, that's the serious bunch I've got."

You would expect things to be a little more serious at Wichita State, Bradley, George Mason, even Gonzaga. This is a chance that might not come again anytime soon.

UCLA coach Ben Howland cautions that this season might end up being the exception because the new NBA rule that requires players to be at least 19 years old and one year out of high school will force elite high school seniors back into the college game, at least for a year.

"It's going to swing back a little now," Howland said. "I mean, can you imagine if Dwight Howard were playing for one year in college?"

For now, all we know is that four teams from conferences that don't play major college football have a shot to get to the Final Four.

Maybe one finally will crack through for the first time in a decade.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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