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Jeff Eisenberg

BracketBuster success could help CAA land three NCAA bids

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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When George Mason finished practice and returned to its Cedar Falls hotel Friday night on the eve of its matchup with Northern Iowa, the Patriots noticed a TV in the lobby had on the Virginia Commonwealth-Wichita State game.

For the last few minutes of the second half, the George Mason players huddled around the TV, cheering for every VCU bucket or defensive stop.

"I really enjoyed seeing that," George Mason coach Jim Larranaga said by phone. "There's a real loyalty there among the CAA schools. Our guys wanted to cheer for VCU knowing how important it is for the league to earn respect nationally.

There was plenty for Colonial Athletic Association members to celebrate this past weekend because the conference flexed its muscles in its BracketBuster matchups. The top six teams from the CAA went 5-1, raising hopes that the league could produce three NCAA tournament teams for the first time ever.

VCU pulled off a surprising 68-67 road win at Missouri Valley Conference co-leader Wichita State on Friday night.

George Mason rallied from a 10-point deficit at Northern Iowa the following day despite an off game from leading scorer Cam Long.

And Old Dominion withstood a 35-point onslaught from Cleveland State guard Norris Cole to emerge with a 74-63 victory.

Only three times in its history has the CAA even placed two teams in the NCAA tournament, yet SI.com's latest mock bracket projects George Mason as a No. 7 seed, Old Dominion as a No. 8 and VCU as a No. 11. Larranaga said the strength of the league is comparable to the benchmark 2006 season when the CAA landed Final Four-bound George Mason and UNC Wilmington in the NCAA tournament and just missed having Hofstra join them.

"Based on the number of all-conference performers returning, I anticipated this was going to be maybe the best season in the conference's history," Larranaga said. "As I watched the non-conference games, I was convinced this could be the best CAA ever, and nothing has changed my mind about it so far."

Respect for the CAA has gradually increased the past five years because the league has enjoyed success in the NCAA tournament. Besides George Mason's ubiquitous Final Four run, VCU toppled Duke in the first round in 2007 and Old Dominion upset Notre Dame last season.

While Old Dominion defeated Clemson, Xavier and Richmond in non-league play and VCU knocked off UCLA on a neutral floor, it's George Mason that's playing the best of the three right now. The Patriots won by 17 at home against Old Dominion on Feb. 5 and by 20 at VCU 10 days later, extending a win streak that has now reached 13 games.

Saturday's win at Northern Iowa may have been the most challenging victory of the streak simply because of the adversity George Mason had to endure to achieve it.

Forward Ryan Pearson was sick the previous day and didn't practice yet scored 21 points and grabbed 15 boards. Guard Andre Cornelius aggravated a shoulder injury and got kicked in the stomach hard enough that he vomited on the floor yet he tallied a game-high 24 points.

That was enough for George Mason to withstand a quiet eight-point game from Long and a barrage of 3-pointers from Northern Iowa, enabling the Patriots to emerge with a 77-71 road victory.

"We found a way to win," Larranaga said. "I think it showed a lot of character on our part."

When Larranaga checked his phone after the game, he had a congratulatory text from Drexel coach Bruiser Flint. It was yet another sign that the CAA programs understand how important this weekend was to the perception of their league.

"Three weeks before Selection Sunday, you want to leave a good impression on the members of the committee with how your team performs and how your league performs," Larranaga said.

For both George Mason and the CAA, it's mission accomplished.

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