Washington, D.C., notebook: Going after another giant
By Greg Abel, Special to Yahoo! Sports
March 26, 2006
The George Mason men's basketball team can be excused if they are not exactly in awe of the Huskies from the University of Connecticut. After all, the Patriots have already beaten Michigan State and North Carolina, two of last year's Final Four teams, and two of the most televised programs in the country.
"We haven't backed down and we are not going to back down just because they are Connecticut," Patriots guard Folarin Campbell said.
In No. 1-seeded Connecticut – the team just about everyone with a microphone or a laptop is picking to win the national title – George Mason will face a program that has all the accolades, rankings, and championships that the Patriots have probably not even allowed themselves to think about.
But in the media session Saturday afternoon at the Verizon Center in D.C., the Patriots carried themselves with the same mix of confidence and levity that has become their trademark.
"We're so deep into the tournament right now, it's like we just can't be satisfied," said guard Tony Skinn.
Added guard Lamar Butler, the senior who has become the unofficial spokesman of the Patriots, "I agree with Tony, we didn't come this far just to settle."
Butler has distinguished himself not just by scoring baskets and playing tough D, but by doing something as simple as enjoying himself. He smiles regularly on the court. He keeps his teammates relaxed and poised. He even came up with a new rallying cry before the game against Wichita State, repeatedly telling his teammates, "They don't know what's coming."
"The personalities on this team, we have a lot of guys who like to have fun and make jokes," Butler said. "You can't help but be loose around some of these guys."
NEW MEDIA GUIDE MATERIAL
Featured athletes on the "Mason Tradition" page in the school's basketball media guide include WNBA player Jen Derevjanik, Major League Soccer player Rich Kotschau, and George Evans, a 2001 mens' basketball honorable mention All-American who currently plays professionally in Belgium.
Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton and Caron Butler, they are not.
Until this year, George Mason had never won an NCAA tournament game, much less reached the round of eight.
"We know that we represent more than just ourselves, and the more that other people can hear about us, the better," head coach Jim Larranaga said.
Like a good politician sticking to his talking points, Larranaga has used every opportunity to talk not just about his team and its success, but about his university. He particularly likes to remind everyone that Mason is not a small private school, but the largest state university in Virginia with nearly 30,000 students.
"I'm sure there have been more hits on our website in the last 10 days than there maybe have been in the last five years," he said.
The players also acknowledged that they represent not just George Mason, but every mid-major school that never made a run like theirs, or even got the chance.
"We are carrying the banner for mid-major schools," said Campbell, one of the more highly recruited Mason players who was also courted by Providence and Georgetown, but committed early to Mason because he knew he could get minutes right away. "We are showing that we can play with the biggest schools."
Skinn offered one of the more entertaining lines of the press conference Saturday in response to a question about what schools recruited him. After his teammates mentioned programs like Xavier, St. Bonaventure, College of Charleston and others, Skinn said his decision was pretty simple.
"My final three were George Mason, George Mason and George Mason," said the native of nearby Takoma Park, Md. "I am really glad I chose George Mason."
A TALL ORDER
Once again, the Patriots will be looking up at their opponents at just about every position on the floor. In the frontcourt, Mason's Jai Lewis, a 6-foot-7, 275-pound wide body, and 6-foot-7, 235-pound Will Thomas will be forced to deal with 6-foot-11 Hilton Armstrong and 6-foot-10 Josh Boone, not to mention 6-foot-9 Rudy Gay, who might be guarded by Campbell, who is 6-foot-4.
It's nothing new for Lewis and Thomas, who have distinguished themselves by shutting down taller opponents by relying on good positioning, team help and a large dose of intestinal fortitude.
"They are great players and we know they are going to get after the glass," said Thomas, who has guarded all-conference big men from the ACC, Big 10 and Missouri Valley Conference in the past three games. "This is a great opportunity for me and Jai. We may not be as big, but we play with big hearts."
Said Skinn, "UConn is a big team, so was North Carolina, so was Michigan State. Will Thomas and Jai Lewis are not two of the biggest big guys, but they are two of the smartest."
Mason has made a name for itself with defense throughout the season, forcing opponents into tough shots and limiting second chances. The Patriots rank ninth in the country in field goal percentage defense.
"We're scrappy, fast, quick, tenacious, that's how I would describe this team," said Butler.
For his part, Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun is not looking at the height chart and assuming his team will dominate. After all, he pointed out, Washington was similarly undersized and only lost the rebounding battle by four (42-38) and Washington's 6-foot-7 forward Jamaal Williams scored 29 points, most of them in the paint.
"He used and abused us," Calhoun said.
GETTING SOME REST
One area where George Mason may have an advantage over Connecticut is in the rest department. Whereas the George Mason game ended before 10 p.m., the UConn-Washington game did not end until about 1 a.m. local time Saturday morning. Most players spoke to the media until close to 1:45 and said they did not fall asleep any earlier than 3 a.m. after eating some pizza.
Here's a quick survey of Connecticut players and when they said they fell asleep after the game:
Upon hearing this anecdote, head coach Jim Calhoun laughed and said, "I'm glad to hear that," and then, raising his voice in mock anger, "Movies are cut off tonight guys."
Calhoun had plenty of praise for Anderson, though, crediting him with being one of the best clutch players he's ever coached.
"No player I've had makes as many daggers' as Rashad does," Calhoun said. "There's something special he brings, he's fearless."
Of Anderson's game-tying three-pointer, teammate Denham Brown said, "Rashad hitting that shot made us all feel that we were destined for something great to happen."
Noteworthy statistics from Friday night's UConn-UW game:
X-MAN IN THE HOUSE
Former Wichita State and NBA superstar Xavier McDaniel sat among the gold and black clad Shocker fans Friday night, though he didn't address the team before the game. Other than perhaps being a few pounds above ideal playing weight, McDaniel looked very much the same as NBA fans remember him, trademark shaved dome and all.
"Wichita State basketball is back on the right track," McDaniel said. "The shots just didn't fall tonight. The only thing I would tell them is keep doing what they're doing."
These days, McDaniel lives in Columbia, S.C., and has become a real estate investor and developer. Although he spent many years playing for the Sonics in Seattle, he said he was not pulling for Washington, just a good game.
The X-Man led the nation in scoring and rebounding as a senior in 1984-85, averaging 27 point and 15 boards per game before a successful NBA career. He said the biggest difference between the college game when he played and today is the obvious tendency for top players to leave early or not go to college at all.
"When I was a senior, you knew who the stars were and they stayed in college for the most part," McDaniel said, reeling off names of players in his draft class such as Chris Mullin, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Jon Koncak, Keith Lee and Wayman Tisdale. "These days it's not the same. Really, I can't blame them. It all depends on your financial situation."
Greg Abel is a freelance writer based in Baltimore whose work has appeared in The Sporting News, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and Street & Smith's Sports Business Journal. He is covering the Washington, D.C., regional exclusively for Yahoo! Sports.
Updated on Sunday, Mar 26, 2006 4:39 am, EST