History is not on George Mason's side
ATLANTA -- Seven years ago, Dan Monson stood in the locker room in Phoenix, fresh off Gonzaga's last-second Sweet 16 win over Florida, and started to plan for the next day.
"I said we'll meet at 9, at 9, at 9 ... " Monson recalled.
"And then Mark Few [his assistant at the time], said 'tomorrow, 9 tomorrow,'" Monson said. "I had no idea what we were doing and when."
That's because the 1999 Zags were in a situation unknown to them at the time -- 40 minutes from the Final Four.
The win over Florida, on a Casey Cavalry tip-in, suddenly thrust the 10th-seeded Zags into the Elite Eight against Connecticut, the No. 1 seed in the West Region.
Coincidentally, George Mason -- the No. 11 seed in the Washington regional -- will take on No. 1 UConn on Sunday at the Verizon Center.
Mid-majors (we're still hunting for a better word, and at the time Gonzaga was one) have been in this situation a few times since the Zags of '99. The last time a mid-major made it to the Final Four, however, was in 1979, when Penn and Indiana State broke through the door -- unless you want to include UMass from the Atlantic 10 in 1996.
Tulsa had a shot in 2000 when Bill Self coached the No. 7 Golden Hurricane to the Elite Eight against No. 8 seed North Carolina in Austin. Even though the Golden Hurricane were the higher seed, they were clearly the lesser known. UNC won 59-55 to reach the Final Four.
Two years later, Stan Heath, then the head coach at Kent State, coached the No. 10 Golden Flashes to the Elite Eight, where they played No. 5 Indiana under second-year coach Mike Davis. Indiana prevailed 81-69, taking advantage of a tired Kent State team that needed overtime against Pitt in the Sweet 16 to advance.
It's a push if you want to put Xavier in the same category, but if we do, the Musketeers were in a similar spot in 2004. No. 7 Xavier played top-seeded Duke in the Elite Eight, losing 66-63.
You would think the pressure on these coaches, these teams, and these programs -- in what could be their one shot at the Final Four -- would be immense. But often, the game comes at them so fast, so they don't have time to fret.
"We never envisioned that we were 40 minutes away [from the Final Four]," Monson said. "We were only thinking about Florida in the Sweet 16 and the turnaround was so quick.
"But it did dawn on me at halftime when we were ahead by one," Monson said of the eventual 67-62 loss to the Huskies. "I knew that if we just played them even for the second half, we'd be going to the Final Four. That thought did cross my mind."
The one constant among the coaches we talked to is that they were all young and new to the Elite Eight. Still, none seemed to be overwhelmed.
"I just remember that it was one of the easiest times I had coaching, because the players were in such a groove," Heath said. The difference for Kent State, then say Gonzaga or Tulsa, is that the Golden Flashes were spent after their Sweet 16 game. Heath said his players were iced up and seeking treatment after playing the physical Panthers. They ran into an Indiana team still bitter about losing to Kent State the previous March.
"I knew they wouldn't take us lightly," Heath said.
Connecticut isn't about to sleep on George Mason, either.
But GMU coach Jim Larranaga, the most seasoned of the coaches who have been in this position the last seven years, isn't about to get tight.
"I told our players that this game is fun, but you don't play it anymore if you lose at this time of the season, so keep enjoying it and don't put any expectations on yourself," Larranaga said on ESPN Radio's "College Gameday" Saturday afternoon.
Larranage is a reasoned man. He tempers his words. He is almost professorial at times and clearly understands who his team is and his role in its success.
Still, he understands the significance of what a win over the Huskies on Sunday would do for the university.
"It will help, but more important, it's what it would do for us as a university," Larranaga said. "What we can't do is get caught up in a game of talent and run and shoot with them."
Most of the mid-majors that reached the Elite Eight had to go through a high-profile program to get here, and usually were no better than a seven seed. If No. 11 George Mason advances, the Patriots would be the lowest-seeded team to make the Final Four since No. 11 LSU in 1986. But they'll have to beat Connecticut, a No. 1 seed, to get to Indy.
Believe it or not, the Patriots might have more than the usual underdog support, since the game is near their Fairfax, Va., campus.
"Jim Calhoun [of Connecticut] said we'll be the home team and I said, 'Does that make us the favorite?' " Larranaga said.
Probably not, but what it does mean is the Patriots, a mid-major, are one win away from the Final Four.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.