Mason proves team ball can overcome money, stars

Updated: April 3, 2006, 4:31 PM ET
By Kyle Whelliston | Special to ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- George Mason's magical run to the national semifinal is finished. Now the repercussions can begin.

"You know, this is history we're living right now," said senior guard Lamar Butler shortly after the Patriots' 73-58 loss to Florida. "Whenever you talk about the Final Four, you have to mention us going to the Final Four. We changed the face of college basketball."

So now that it's over, what exactly have the Patriots revolutionized? A lot of so-called conventional wisdom, certainly. In the coming years, we'll find out exactly how GMU's mid-major uprising has impacted NCAA tournament selection, recruiting, and the hopes and dreams for the 242 Division I schools that live outside the power conferences and made-for-TV leagues.

What we do know now is that the gutsy, undersized, fun-loving Kryptonite Kids smashed through the invisible barrier that had separated mid-major schools and the Final Four for 27 years. Three weeks ago, it was an alien concept; college basketball now is a truly egalitarian world where all teams can reach unreachable stars, not just the wealthy few.

"It's motivation for all those teams that thought that they had no chance to do something like this," said Tom Yeager, the commissioner of GMU's conference, the Colonial Athletic Association. "It's going to have kids believing in themselves and each other. They'll hit the weight room and work hard and stay together as a team. They'll tell each other, 'If George Mason could do it, we can do it.' Whether this is exactly replicated or not is immaterial. It's going to give a lot of people a lot of hope."

The Patriots struck deeper into March than any small-conference school in the six-round no-bye era, which began in 1985. Whether selection committees of the future admit it or not, these four wins will be used as a yardstick as to what mid-major teams can do once given the opportunity to jump on the Big Bracket.

Until this year, it was simply assumed that a fifth-place team from a league like the SEC or ACC with a record over .500 was more qualified to participate in the NCAA Tournament than a mid-major conference tourney runner-up. After being told that it didn't belong, George Mason destroyed the myth, following up a CAA semifinal loss with NCAA wins over half of last year's Final Four (Michigan State and North Carolina) as well as over a one-seed widely considered to be the overall favorite (Connecticut).

And future tournament gatekeepers should remember the clear message that teams at this level can play, says the proud leader of George Mason's conference.

"I think maybe they'll accept mid-major teams who have done everything they can do, to the best of their ability," Yeager said. "You'd like to think these teams will get an extra look, that they won't just be summarily dismissed in favor of high-profile programs."

But the greatest legacy of this George Mason team may end up being that its green-and-gold whole was far greater than the sum of its parts. With five double-figure scorers and zero rock-hogging egos, the Patriots were able to overcome three star-laden teams, scores of doubters, and steep odds.

"There's no greater example of team before individual than what they've done," said Northwestern State head coach Mike McConathy, whose own no-star concept resulted in a first-round upset win over Iowa. "When you depend on two guys to get points, you're vulnerable to get upset by a lower-level team that is hitting you from five different ways. That's difficult to prepare for, because you don't know where we're going to hit you from ... in reverse, we know exactly where their points are coming from and we can focus on slowing them down."

George Mason -- a school that spent a relatively humble $1 million on men's basketball in 2004-05 (according to the U.S. Department of Education) -- defeated universities that spent $6.3 million (Michigan State), $4.8 million (UNC) and $5.5 million (UConn) on men's hoops, before a school with $4.6 million to spend (Florida) finally defeated it in Indianapolis. The Patriots' success in the face of finite finances might convince more resource-challenged coaches to construct their teams like puzzles, instead of building around a central star or two.

"I think that's the way you have to do it," said McConathy. "Basketball is a team sport. If you convince guys to play together, you can play with anyone at that higher level. I really think it's a great angle for coaches to look at."

Over these past three weeks, the revolutionary heroes at GMU have provided a priceless touchstone for any mid-major teams that wish to follow in their footsteps by proving a point that will resonate through the coming months and seasons and decades. It's not outside the realm of possibility anymore for a little school from a little conference can slay a line of giants and go all the way to the Final Four. And next time, there won't be as many doubters.

"Overall, I don't think you're going to see the elite players of the elite teams change their attitude just because George Mason made the Final Four," said John Feinstein, author of the canonical mid-major chronicle, "The Last Amateurs." "But what you may see is more respect for teams like George Mason when they come on the scene ... and they will in the future."

Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a regular 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).