DENVER (AP)—They were the little guys to love, the proof that impossible dreams can come true, the remarkable team and story that appears out of nowhere only once in a rare while.
Or once every other year?
After missing the tournament in the year after their remarkable Final Four run in 2006, the George Mason Patriots are back. Now, the big question is: What can they possibly do for an encore?
And could George Mason, in fact, be this year’s George Mason?
“We talk about this because we get asked about it all the time,” coach Jim Larranaga said as his team prepared for a first-round meeting Thursday against Notre Dame in the South Regional. “Everybody understands: That was then. This is now.”
But George Mason always will be linked to that remarkable run. It becomes obvious when Larranaga ticks off a dozen differences between “then” and “now” at the school, most of which were sparked by that run to the Final Four.
Most notably, the school is expanding, spending $500 million over the next five years in upgrades, improvements, new dorm rooms. On the school Web site, there’s a list of 21 projects due to be completed over the next 30 months on the campus in Fairfax, Va.
The school bookstore, which normally does about $11,000 in business a week, did $876,000 in 10 days around the time of the Final Four streak.
Larranaga has gone from the coach of a relatively unknown commuter school buried in the D.C. metroplex to an in-demand motivational speaker. He got a spot on the school management faculty.
“I teach within the university,” said the 58-year-old Bronx, N.Y., native, whose only stint in a major conference came as an assistant to Terry Holland at Virginia three decades ago. “Things that I like to do, I’ve now been given that opportunity.
“The impact of the Final Four, it absolutely changed me completely.”
One thing that will not change is Larranaga’s demand that his players soak in the experience and have fun. Tight teams that take themselves too seriously rarely do well in big-pressure moments like these.
Sure, America would love to see 12th-seeded George Mason (23-10) make another magical run. But the Patriots are sure nobody really expects that.
“We try not to think about that,” said Will Thomas, one of the two key players who remain from the 2006 run, along with Folarin Campbell. “I think when you think about it, you’re putting pressure on yourself to go out there and do stuff that you’re not used to doing. You’re not really thinking about the game, you’re thinking about what people put on you.”
The Patriots came by this humility honestly. Any inflated egos that resulted from the Final Four were quickly punctured last year, a slog of a season that ended at 18-15 with no postseason beyond the conference tournament.
This year, they were sliding off the bubble during a streak in which they lost four of seven, including a 70-59 loss to Northeastern in the regular-season finale.
“I said, `Listen, we play that kind of defense in the CAA tournament, and our tournament stay will be very brief, I guarantee you that,”’ Larranaga said.
Instead, the team rededicated itself to defense, teamwork and, yes, having fun. The Patriots won the Colonial Athletic Conference tournament and found themselves in the big show again.
“Half the guys on our team, more than half the guys on this year’s team, weren’t on that team,” Larranaga said. “So we just tell them, `Hey, this is your turn. This is your turn to have great fun and play great basketball.”’
Hoping to put a quick end to the next chapter in the George Mason saga is another team America loves to love—or hate—in the fifth-seeded Fighting Irish (24-7).
“What I was surprised at when I looked at their roster Sunday, I would have thought maybe they got younger the last couple years since that run in the Final Four,” coach Mike Brey said. “But they’re still old, you know.”
Led by Big East player of the year Luke Harangody, Notre Dame hasn’t lost two in a row all season—supposedly a good omen considering they come to Denver after a loss to Marquette in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament.
Also a topic: Notre Dame’s first-round loss to Winthrop last year in Spokane, Wash.
“I would hope after being in it last year we’re grown up a little bit more,” Brey said. “We’ve learned to win again this regular season. But I think when we walked in the building this afternoon, we weren’t looking around as much as we were last year.”
The Patriots, meanwhile, are trying to act like underdogs even though a lot of people expect them to win. They’re trying to act like they haven’t been here before, even though they have.
Heading into the tournament, Larranaga got advise from Bob Rotella, the famous sports psychologist, who he termed a “very, very good friend” of his.
“He said, `Listen, your whole focus, your whole team’s focus has to be relax and enjoy the journey. Have fun with it. Don’t be uptight. … You have everything to gain and nothing to lose,”’ Larranaga said. “He said, `If you go in with that mind set, I think your guys will play great.”’