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Washington, D.C. notebook: The little program that could

Washington, D.C. notebook: The little program that could
By Greg Abel, Special to Yahoo! Sports
March 28, 2006

Notebooks: Washington, D.C. | Minneapolis
Features: Father of the Pride | Finishing with a flourish

Regular-season highlights: George Mason

Two weeks ago, we began coverage of the Washington region by taking a look at how college basketball has become a game of haves and have-nots. The highest seeds in the region – Connecticut, Tennessee, North Carolina, Washington and Michigan State – operate on budgets in the range of $3 to $6 million a year and bring in significantly more, benefiting from league television deals and sellout crowds in large, pro-style arenas.

The have-nots on the other hand, like, oh, I don't know, George Mason, make do on about $1 million, or in the case of Albany (remember Albany?), about $780,000.

Score one for the little guys.

With their magical dance to the Final Four, George Mason showed everyone in this bracket (and in the country), that smaller programs from smaller conferences can hang with the big boys – and then some.

What's next? The Devil Rays in the World Series? Middle Tennessee State in the Rose Bowl?

For years to come, the Patriots' run through Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State, and big, blustery Connecticut will be held up as Exhibit A in "The Case of the Mid-Majors vs. the NCAA Selection Committee" and all of its scientific, RPI and strength of schedule-based criteria.

It had been 20 years since a team from the Colonial Athletic Association received the benefit of the doubt in the form of an at-large bid. And when George Mason got one and the Missouri Valley Conference received (horrors!) three, Billy Packer and Dick Vitale cried for the likes of Cincinnati and Florida State, mainstays of college basketball's power conference.

Two weeks later, the evidence from this region is in and it reads, in part:

Wichita State 80, Tennessee 73 George Mason 75, Michigan State 65 George Mason 65, North Carolina 60 George Mason 86, Connecticut 84

Memo to Florida State and Cincinnati backers: Maybe next time you should win your conference tournament.

In the meantime, anyone out there who hasn't jumped on the George Mason bandwagon yet, well, you're missing one heck of a ride.

On to the accolades:

Best Moment: This one is easy. The sound of the final buzzer Sunday afternoon. George Mason wins, pandemonium ensues. Everyone went nuts. George Mason had done it, beating mighty UConn.

Best Player: OK, tough call here. The official Most Outstanding Player of the region award went to Lamar Butler, the clutch George Mason shooting guard. But the nod here goes to Connecticut's Marcus Williams. The left-handed point guard kept the Huskies in every game, and his floor leadership was the only reason they didn't lose to Kentucky or Washington before they even faced George Mason. For the tournament, Williams averaged 20 points and 8 assists, and only missed one free throw.

Best Shot: With apologies to Folarin Campbell, who made an amazing fade-away over Rudy Gay with one minute left in overtime against Connecticut; and Denham Brown, who comes in a close second with his buzzer-beating reverse lay-up to force OT against the Patriots. This award goes to Connecticut's Rashad Anderson. With the Huskies all but headed home for the weekend, Anderson drained a three-pointer with two seconds left to force overtime against Washington. It was an incredible shot. Later, Anderson said, "you give me that shot 30 times, I will make it 30 times." Then again, Anderson guaranteed victory over George Mason, so he's not always right.

Most questionable call: Double technical on Rudy Gay and Brandon Roy, six minutes into the second half of the Washington-Connecticut game. Gay and Roy got tangled up as Gay came off a screen and Roy was called for a foul, his third of the game. The two then got in each other's face and talked a little trash, no punches thrown or shoves made. The referee quickly called a technical, which resulted in Roy's fourth foul.

The threshold for a technical should be much, much higher in that situation. At the time, Washington led by eight and had major momentum. When Roy came back in, the lead had been cut to two.

Best Near-Miss: Tennessee 63, Winthrop 61. Pity poor Winthrop. The champions from the Big South keep earning invitations to the NCAA tournament but can't get a win. They've gone to six of the last eight tournaments, and this year the Eagles had Tennessee on the ropes all game but couldn't put the Vols away. A jumper by Tennessee's Chris Lofton with a couple seconds left provided one of the tournament's first magic moments.

Best Coach: George Mason's Jim Larranaga. His honesty, enthusiasm and "just smile baby" philosophy on hoops and life have been an inspiration.

Best Up and Coming Coach: Will Brown, Albany. The 34-year-old leader of the Great Danes said "Why Not Us" and his team led Connecticut for 30 minutes of first-round fun.

Biggest Coming Out Party: Will Thomas, George Mason. The 6-foot-7, 235-pound power forward outplayed, in succession: Paul Davis, Michigan State; Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina; Paul Miller, Wichita State; and Josh Boone, Connecticut. Hello world.

Greg Abel is a freelance writer based in Baltimore whose work has appeared in and Street & Smith's Sports Business Journal. He covered the Washington, D.C., regional exclusively for Yahoo! Sports.

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Updated on Tuesday, Mar 28, 2006 3:01 am, EST

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