March 14, 2011
Walk around the campus at George Mason, and the reminders of the Patriots' dream 2006 Final Four run are everywhere.
There's the Final Four banner that hangs from the rafters at the campus arena, the bobble-head dolls of the 2006 players given to Patriot fans this year and the super-sized Sports Illustrated cover of George Mason after the team reached the Sweet 16 that hangs in the office of coach Jim Larranaga.
"I have trash bags of newspapers, I have bobble-heads, pictures, Final Four shoes, watches, rings," said guard Lamar Butler, who added that he has so much paraphernalia that he one day plans to have a George Mason room at his house full of Final Four gear "to prove that granddad really did play basketball."
Five years after the Patriots reached the Final Four as a No. 11 seed in what might be the most unexpected run in the NCAA tournament's 72-year-history, many fans are looking at the 2011 bracket and asking, "Who is this year's George Mason?" It's a pretty silly question to ask year after year considering that even if another mid-major with a double-digit seed were to crash the Final Four again, it would be difficult to match the cast of characters and script from George Mason's Cinderella story.
There was Larranaga, the zany coach who promised his team before the tournament that he'd have more fun than any other boss in the Big Dance. Still on the George Mason bench these days at age 61, Larranaga became an overnight media darling that March with his off-the-wall antics and motivational ploys.
There was the starting five of no-name players: Butler, Jai Lewis, Tony Skinn, Folarin Campbell and Will Thomas. They were all local products without NBA futures soaking up their one shining moment.
Just how close were they?
"Family, like blood brothers," Butler said.
Now five years later, that starting unit is spread out all over the world. While Butler is currently living in the D.C. area and about to launch an online sporting goods store while weighing his pro basketball options, the other four are all playing for foreign teams.
Skinn and Campbell both play in Germany, Thomas is in Belgium. And Lewis is starring in Japan after stops in the Philippines, Israel, Bosnia and even a 2006 tryout with the New York Giants in an attempt to follow in Antonio Gates' footsteps as a college basketball star turned NFL tight end.
The last time any of them made a splash in the United States was this overseas dunk last year by Skinn that went viral on the Internet.
The players themselves keep in touch a lot over the web, whether it's tracking each other's play online or connecting over Facebook, Twitter and Skype.
"It's almost impossible not to talk to each other," Butler said.
They also get to hang out with each other during the summer months when everyone returns home to the D.C. area in the offseason. And this June will be extra special because George Mason will be holding a five-year anniversary celebration of the '06 team.
What made that Final Four run particularly memorable was how unlikely it was.
Named after a largely forgotten American patriot, George Mason was a school that many people either didn't know existed or couldn't locate on a map (it's outside D.C. in Fairfax, Va.). As for the basketball program, it had never won a single NCAA tournament game entering the '06 Big Dance and was perpetually stuck in the shadows of nearby powerhouses Georgetown and Maryland.
The Patriots entered the tournament with a chip on their shoulder after college basketball gurus blasted the selection committee for giving them an at-large bid despite a shaky resume.
And the road looked incredibly daunting with the 11th-seeded Patriots squaring off in the first round against a Michigan State team coming off a Final Four appearance the year before and the defending national champion North Carolina Tar Heels likely awaiting the winner in the second round.
But the Patriots pulled off a stunner, knocking off Michigan State by 10 in the first round to silence their critics. That's when Larranaga went into his bag of motivational tricks to bring down the champs.
The coach hummed the theme of "Mission Impossible" to his players before the UNC game and told them that North Carolina was Superman and the green-clad Patriots were kryptonite. After falling behind 16-2 to start the game, George Mason switched to a zone defense that UNC never solved, propelling the Patriots to a 65-60 win and a trip to the Sweet 16. Larranaga was so excited he even busted out the "Running Man'' in the locker room.
"His dancing was horrible," Butler joked.
Serendipitously, George Mason played its next two games at D.C.'s Verizon Center, just 30 minutes from the GMU campus.
"I remember after the North Carolina game, we were all in the huddle like, 'We're going home,'" Butler said. "That was basically the theme for the next two games: We're playing in front of home, we can't lose."
After dispatching Wichita State in the Sweet 16, George Mason faced another member of college basketball royalty: The Connecticut Huskies, featuring future NBA star Rudy Gay. In one of the greatest Elite Eight games in NCAA history, George Mason prevailed in overtime, 86-84, after a UConn buzzer-beating 3-pointer grazed off the rim.
A wild celebration ensued with George Mason cutting down the nets in front of the largely pro-Patriots crowd.
"In terms of my professional career, it's definitely the highlight at this point," Larranaga said. "What made it so special was the people that could share in it."
The party lasted nearly a week as Larranaga was everywhere: Doing national TV interviews, handing out donuts to students trying to get Final Four tickets and dancing at the school's pep rally.
When the George Mason plane arrived in Indianapolis, a throng of fans was waiting for the team at the airport and hotel, which Butler likened to the preseason celebration the Miami Heat held for LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade last July.
"I guess you could say we had the South Beach introduction first," Butler joked.
The dream finally came to an end in the Final Four semifinals when facing a Florida team that starred Joakim Noah and Al Horford, the Patriots lost by 15.
Don't ask Butler what went wrong in a game that still pains him to think about.
"Honestly, I blocked that game out," he said. "I honestly couldn't tell you what happened. I just remember the buzzer going off and that was it."
Even though they're no longer on campus, the impact the 2006 squad had on the basketball program and entire university has been tremendous. The following year, freshman applications jumped 25 percent for the school. And the exposure in '06 helped Larranaga recruit on a national level, landing players from outside of the D.C. area.
And it just so happens that George Mason is having another magical season, going 26-6 so far and earning a No. 8 seed in the East Region. In order to reach the Final Four, the Patriots will have to go through Villanova and Ohio State and probably have to topple college basketball blue bloods Kentucky and North Carolina. Well, at least it's nothing they haven't done before.
The media and fans love pointing out the similarities between this year's team and the '06 squad (they both lost in the CAA Tournament semifinals!) in hopes that George Mason could be, well, this year's George Mason, but Larranaga and the team insist the comparisons are overblown.
And even if the Patriots were to have another miracle march to the Final Four, their coach realizes nothing can replicate what took place five years ago.
Said Larranaga of the 2006 experience: "You can only go through it once in a lifetime because if you do it again, you are doing it for the second time."
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