Destiny’s darlings eye Final Four

In between entertaining a recruit he hopes can get George Mason back to the NCAA tournament and, who knows, even the Final Four, Jim Larranaga was at home Saturday afternoon watching the Big Dance like everyone else.

And as the unwashed masses from the ranks of the mid-majors kept punching tickets to the Sweet 16 – Northern Iowa over Kansas, St. Mary’s over Villanova, Butler over Murray State – he thought about the inevitable question.

“Can another George Mason make the Final Four?” Larranaga, the coach who led the Patriots to the Holy Grail in 2006, said. “Yes I think it’s possible. There are some very good teams.

“Northern Iowa is a very good team. St. Mary’s is a very good team. Butler is a very good team. Yes they could make it.”

Ali Farokhmanesh and his Northern Iowa teammates refuse to be intimidated.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Four years ago George Mason was the toast of the tournament, the first true mid-major to reach the Final Four since 1979, when Penn and Indiana State did it. Until then, Cinderellas were good for some first weekend fun, but the dream eventually died.

Then the Patriots defeated Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut en route the Final Four. It wasn’t just a fluke moment, it changed perceptions and attitudes across non-power conferences.

If nothing else, that was what was on display Saturday. Larranaga wasn’t interested in taking credit for anyone else’s accomplishments, but he was willing to acknowledge that game has changed.

Northern Iowa defeated mighty Kansas because from the first seconds to the final moments it believed it could. Same for St. Mary’s over Villanova. These teams aren’t just good, they’re confident. They believed that a Sweet 16 appearance was every bit as much their destiny as the Kansas or Villanova kids did.

“The intimidation factor is not the way it used to be in the 1980s when a high major would get on the court and guys would say, ‘Oh my, these guys are great, these guys are going to the NBA.’”

Intimidation? Please. Did Northern Iowa’s Ali Farokhmanesh look intimidated when he knocked down a 3-pointer with 34 seconds left to all but clinch the victory over Kansas?

“Might as well take that shot,” Farokhmanesh said with a shrug postgame on CBS. “That’s just how we play we always act like we are winning the game no matter what.”

Or against whom.

Northern Iowa played Kansas like it was a mid-January league game against Drake.

The St. Mary’s players were no less worried when they locked up with a Villanova team that was a No. 2 seed, had stood atop the polls earlier this season and reached the Final Four a year ago. In fact, the Gaels were so confident that the mother of star center Omar Samhan told her son she wasn’t going to bother traveling to the team’s first two games in Rhode Island. She told him she’d see him at the Sweet 16 in Houston.

“My mom has had a flight to Houston since Selection Sunday,” Samhan said. “I’m glad we’ll be there, too, because she was going either way. That’s where we get our confidence from, my mom.”

Upsets have always been a part of the NCAA tournament. Dream runs for Cinderellas have captured the nation’s imagination for years. Yet there was always a ceiling. Now, who knows? Larranaga said his team was able to reach the Final Four because it entered each game with a bit of swagger.

He sees that same thing in this field. And he figures that while few mid-majors are going to boldly discuss reaching the NCAAs final weekend, there is little doubt the players have thought about it.

“Many of the players who are playing now were in high school (in 2006) and they watched us,” Larranaga said. “When they decided to go to a mid-major they definitely thought, ‘Hey, I hope we can do what George Mason did.’

“There’s a definite vision that since someone else did it, we can do it too.”

By definition Northern Iowa is a Final Four contender. It just defeated the No. 1 seed overall and a team that had spent the entire season ranked in the top three of the national polls. If you can beat Kansas, you can beat anyone. UNI even controlled the game. KU’s only lead was 2-0.

Larranaga pointed to the way Butler can shoot the ball and plays together. The fact the program may be small in budget but has had such sustained success over the last decade makes a Final Four berth (in this case in its hometown) not that far-fetched.

“St. Mary’s would be a surprise to many but only if you hadn’t watched them play. And that’s part of the issue,” Larranaga said. “With the ‘experts’ on television, familiarity breeds hype. It’s the same with fans.

“They just have so much more knowledge of the high major. It’s, ‘Oh, I’ve seen this team three, four, five times. I’ve maybe seen Butler or Murray State or Old Dominion once.

“Well, how about Samhan!”

Samhan had 32 points and seven rebounds and looked every bit as good as any big man in the country. If you have the best center, isn’t anything possible?

“You can’t let your team believe what they hear on television,” Larranaga said. “What helps is there’s no fear factor. The game is no longer local or regional, it’s national or international. They all play against each other in high school or AAU ball.”

Saturday was a day of stunning results. Three mid-majors punched tickets to the Sweet 16 and none of them looked like they were thinking about slowing down. During their historic, seismic run the George Mason fans used to sing Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer.”

For the mid-major that follows them to the tourney’s last weekend, it may be less about prayers and more about destiny.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Saturday, Mar 20, 2010