Mason sticks around in its own Tourney Wonderland

Originally Published: March 24, 2006
By Kyle Whelliston | Special to ESPN.com

WASHINGTON -- The closer you get to the national championship, the farther away the game of basketball seems to get.

When you arrive at the Sweet 16, there's a sense of distorted detachment that an NBA arena or football dome provides. The venue is a towering cylinder filled with tens of thousands of faces, each with a story of how far they travelled, how they came by their tickets. From floor level, the messages of the acronym sign-holders and the body-painters in the 400 level are unreadably tiny. The game itself is reduced to snapshot memories and short video clips to be played in perpetua on highlight shows; the whole experience can sometimes be more like a heat-and-serve "college basketball product" than actual sport.

Teams from power conferences are used to this, because they live it night in and night out. But this isn't where George Mason or Wichita State come from -- both teams are cut from the thick and tangled fabric of mid-major basketball. They come from the dark, cozy Patriot Center and the wild, rowdy Roundhouse, both light-years away from national TV and 20,000-strong crowds. And both had to slay a lot of giants to earn their way here, in this strange dream-state called the Washington Regional, with a spot in the NCAA's Elite Eight on the line.

George Mason's house is just eight Metro stops away from the Verizon Center, outside the Beltway loop in little Fairfax, Va. But on Friday night in downtown Washington, they felt right at home; in addition to the school's alotted quarter of the arena, small pockets of Patriot green and gold speckled the Connecticut and Washington sections. In the first two minutes, the Patriot players rode that support to an early 9-0 lead, fueled by Folarin Campbell 3-pointers.

"At the beginning of the game I was left wide open," said Campbell afterwards. "I just took the shots and they just happened to fall."

Folarin Campbell
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertCampbell got GMU off to a quick start from the arc.

"I think that got us on our heels," said Wichita State senior forward Paul Miller, the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year. "Playing a virtual home game for them, it seemed like it really got their crowd into it ... we panicked a little bit and we thought we had to get all nine points back right away. And there were 38 minutes left in the game."

If this late-March battle represented a MVC-vs.-CAA Mid-Major Super Bowl of sorts, the ensuing 38 minutes recalled the blowout NFC wins back in the late 80's and early 90's. Wichita State looked tired and lost and small against the NCAA's dizzying panorama, especially on the defensive end. For much of the contest, the Shockers only showed sizzle when George Mason slumped, and were never able to find the solid team play that typified their 26-9 record and regular-season championship in the Missouri Valley Conference, the toughest mid-major league in the land.

Just as they did in their first matchup on BracketBusters Saturday, Wichita State won the war on the glass, this time by a 43-32 count. But the Shockers required 20 more shots (64 to 44) to achieve the same number of field goals (20), resulting in a 31.3 percent shooting performance. P.J. Couisnard and Sean Ogirri, catalysts in the wins over Seton Hall and Tennessee, combined to shoot an abysmal 3-for-21.

The game showed both the ups and downs of the starless and selfish systems that typify the NCAA's new mid-major powers. Wichita State received approximately one-and-a-half solid games from its four-man nucleus, and the resulting disaster fooled many first-time observers into believing that they didn't belong -- much less in their home whites. George Mason, on the other hand, transcended any and all distractions, and showed the same solid team effort that they have all season: four Patriots finished in double figures, highlighted by forward Will Thomas' double-double.

"I've been a head coach for 20 years," said GMU head coach Jim Larranaga afterwards. "I think one of the things that separates this team is that we have so many well-balanced weapons. By that I mean that we don't have one go-to guy on the inside in Jai [Lewis], we have two, because Will can do the work inside. We don't have one three-point threat, we have several ... you have Lamar [Butler], Tony [Skinn] and Folarin shooting threes."

And even if they don't win another game this season, even if UConn sends them on the short ride back home on Sunday, George Mason's Patriot heroes are the last mid-major left standing in the tournament, the first to reach the Elite Eight since Kent State in 2002. In achieving that, they've given the Colonial Athletic Association the deep March run it has dreamed of for two long decades, and have told future selection committees all they need to know about whether teams from the CAA can play.

"Our league didn't get the respect that we know it deserves," said Larranaga. "We had a great league, and it's prepared us very well for the tournament and I think that's why we're doing so well."

And as the seconds ticked away on their third NCAA win, senior guard Butler hugged the ball and savored the moment while the fans chanted the conference's rallying cry of recent weeks: "C! A! A!"

"It was an adrenaline rush from my head down to my toes," Butler recalled later. "It was an awesome feeling, I don't know how to describe it. I looked at my father, he was smiling from ear to ear. They were all smiling, my brother, my mother. It was just awesome."

And then, the buzzer sealed a 63-55 Mason victory that was far more lopsided than the score indicates. But 60 seconds after the horn sounded, the joyous celebration from the triple-decker layer cake of Mason fans was silenced by another blast -- it was time to move out, so Connecticut and Washington, the participants in the evening's second regional semifinal, could move in.

For George Mason, this is truly a strange, beautiful, surreal new world.

Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a daily contributor to ESPN.com.

Kyle Whelliston

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
Kyle Whelliston has contributed to ESPN.com's college basketball coverage since 2005. He covers mid-major programs for Basketball Times magazine, and will have a basketball travelogue of the 2008-09 season published next summer. Whelliston also founded midmajority.com and statistical database site Basketball State (bbstate.com).