The "next George Mason" adage has been used and abused by commentators more than Britney Spears meltdown headlines on the cover of weekly entertainment magazines.
What Jim Larranaga's improbable Final Four bunch did a season ago was nothing short of miraculous. Questioned by most pundits for receiving an at-large bid, the Colonial representative shocked the world, defeating the previous two national champions Michigan State and North Carolina over the first weekend and a talent-rich UConn club in the Elite 8 that produced four first-round NBA draft picks.
The unbelievable run by a school that has only been in Division I since 1979 was exhilarating and unthinkable. Their unpredictable performance embedded a Patriot musket ball in bracketologists' collective derrires – mine still sets off airport metal detectors.
Because many fans and analysts were enraptured by the storybook Patriot season, the "next George Mason" catch phrase has become a misused mid-major tagline where ranked teams are classified unfairly.
Little giants Nevada, UNLV, Southern Illinois and Butler don't deserve such a designation because they are all top-seven seeds, each with a reasonable shot to blaze a trail to Atlanta. Remember, the Patriots were a No. 11 seed and were not ranked at any point during the '05-'06 regular season. Just because a ranked team plays in a non-BCS conference doesn't mean they're not a powerhouse club – ask Notre Dame, Indiana, Tennessee and Purdue about Butler.
It's also important to note that it's highly unlikely another team could replicate such a magical accomplishment. Only George Mason and LSU in 1986 – also a No. 11 seed – were the lowest seeds to overcome inconceivable odds and reach the Final Four. Heck, no 9 or 10 seed has ever advanced to the national semifinals, although seven have reached the Elite 8.
Whatever you do, don't bank on a George Mason copycat performance when filling out your bracket this year.
So what true "George Masons" (No. 11-plus mid-major seeds) have the best chance of leaving a Cinderella stiletto lodged in the head of Goliath?
Here are five snakes-in-the-grass with the best shot to win a game or two:
#'s in parentheses – for Key Wins and Key Losses – denote margin of win/loss
RPI and SOS are taken from realtimerpi.com; Efficiency statistics are from kenpom.com
Individual team stat ranks for games played through March 8
Starting Five: G-Michael Jenkins (15.3 PPG), G-Torrell Martin (14.3 PPG), G-Chris Gaynor (4.7:1.4 AST:TO), F-Phillip Williams (52.6 FG%), C-Craig Bradshaw (13.3 PPG)
Key Wins: at Mississippi St. (11), at Old Dominion (6), at Missouri St. (11)
Key Losses: North Carolina (7), at Maryland (11), at Wisconsin (3), at Texas A&M (20)
Why the slipper fits: Unequivocally, Winthrop is the Secretariat of dark horses. One of two teams nationally to go undefeated in conference play, the Eagles rolled through the Big South winning by an average margin of 14.4 PPG, seventh-best in DI. Winthrop is an experienced, close-knit club that starts five stalwart upperclassman who've limited opponents to a dismal 60.9 PPG this year. Led by three-point drainer Michael Jenkins (3.1 threes made per-game), their difficult non-conference schedule, window cleaning interior – they rank eighth nationally in offensive rebound percentage – and defensive prowess could make them this year's underdog darling. However, matched against an Irish team with a NASCAR offense, they'll have to control the tempo and clamp Collin Falls and Russell Carter on the perimeter to be the team everyone's tabbing as the "next George Mason."
Starting Five: G-Stephen Curry (21.2 PPG), G-Jason Richards (7.3 APG), G-Max Pauihus Gosselin (40.8 3PT%), F-Thomas Sander (13.5 PPG), F-Boris Meno (8.1 RPG)
Key Win: at Arizona St. (5)
Key Losses: at Michigan (10), at Missouri (6), at Duke (28)
Why the slipper fits: Greg Oden and Kevin Durant who? Son of former NBA standout Dell Curry, freshman Stephen Curry is an unknown dandy whose diapers are gold-plated. Averaging 3.5 three-point field-goals made per game, Curry is the sharp fang of the Wildcats offense. Led by traffic controller Jason Richards (second in the nation in assists), Davidson, the second youngest team in the nation, is a well-rounded club that cleans the glass tenaciously (7.3 rebound margin per game) and boasts four players who average double-figures in scoring. Given the Cats arc proclivity and their strong conversion rate at the charity stripe (75.0%), if Davidson can squeeze the orange defensively, the SoCon kings will be very tough for Maryland to oust – just ask Thad Matta how scrappy they were in Round 1 last year.
Starting Five:G-Eric Maynor (6.3 APG), G-B.A. Walker (14.8 PPG), G-Jesse Pellot-Rosa (13.0 PPG), F-Will Fameni (9.2 PPG), F-Michael Anderson (47.8 FG%)
Key Win: at Drexel (7), Drexel (7), Old Dominion (5)
Key Losses: Xaiver (3), at Old Dominion (16), Bradley (9)
Why the slipper fits: VCU's terrific trio of guards is their Golden Fleece. This year's Colonial conference regular season (16-2 record) and tourney champion possesses a triple-trouble backcourt threat (Maynor, Walker and Pellot-Rosa) that can drive, penetrate, create and, most importantly, nail threes. Former Florida assistant, and Colonial Coach of the Year, Anthony Grant has brought the Gators aggressive, uptempo style to VCU with much success – the Rams average almost 75 points per contest. One of the more accurate three-point shooting teams in the nation (40.0 3-PT%), VCU is an unselfish, polished bunch who cradle the basketball, averaging a mere 11.4 turnovers per game – 12th-best in the country. Because of their outstanding backcourt, if Grant can get adequate production out of post players Fameni, Anderson and Calvin Roland, they'll make every "Duke boy" across the nation weep endlessly.
Starting Five: G-Drew Williamson (11.2 PPG, 4.5 APG), G-Brian Henderson (9.6 PPG), G-Brandon Johnson (8.2 PPG), F-Valdas Vasylius (15.8 PPG), F-Arnaud Dahi (6.3 RPG)
Key Wins: at Georgetown (13), Drexel (27), at Drexel (10)
Key Losses: Clemson (4), at Virginia Tech (17), Winthrop (6), at VCU (5)
Why the slipper fits: Two wins over the four-letter network's poster-child of the unfair, Drexel, was the obvious difference why Old Dominion was the committee's second Colonial representative. An upperclassman-laden squad (three seniors and two juniors in starting lineup) with composure, the Monarchs are a stout defensive team (41.2 defensive FG%, 62.2 PPG allowed) that crash the boards and create second chance opportunities – they rank 24th nationally in offensive rebound percentage. Drew Williamson is an excellent distributor who can drop bombs from behind the arc. His matchup against Butler star A.J. Graves is pivotal to Old Dominion being this year's perennial 12-seed advancer. Look for Lithuanian leviathan Valdas Vasylius and African import Arnaud Dahi to collar a Bulldogs club that sports a deplorable -1.2 rebound margin en route to an upset.
Starting Five: G-Ken Tutt (16.1 PPG), G-Adam Liberty (6.9 PPG), G-Yemi Ogunoye (46.0 FG%), F-Caleb Green (20.8 PPG, 9.3 RPG), C-Shawn King (64.2 FG%)
Key Wins: at Kansas (7), at Seton Hall (2)
Key Losses: at Georgetown (15), at Arkansas (12), at BYU (10)
Why the slipper fits: Quite possibly the greatest No. 16 seed ever last season, the monsters of the Mid-Con are set to scare an inexperienced NCAA tournament team in Washington St. in Round 1. Mid-Con Player of the Year, forward Caleb Green, is a legit NBA prospect that can score at will inside the arc, averaging 20.8 points, while snatching 9.3 rebounds rebounds per game. Guard Ken Tutt is a superb outside complement to Green, averaging 16.1 points and 2.5 threes made per game. If Marchello Vealy and Shawn King can help Caleb Green contain the paint, the Golden Eagles could spread their wings against a Washington St. team that ranks 259th nationally in rebound margin (-2.6). Wazzu will try to frustrate the Golden Eagles by establishing a sluggish pace, but this is a fearless Oral Roberts group that has already proven they can alter the earth's tilt – they upended Kansas at Phog Allen back in November.
Before a team name is scribbled on the bracket line, here are a few underdog facts to keep in mind:
Since 2002, on average, 9.2 upsets per year (games in which an underdog knocks off a team at least four seeds higher) have occurred.
Two 12-seeds or higher have advanced to the Second Round in 20 of the past 21 years.
No No. 16 team has ever toppled Goliath, although four No. 15 seeds have been giant killers and advanced to the Second Round. Although, Patrick Ewing wakes up in cold sweats over Princeton.
Since 1985, two No. 11 seeds (George Mason and LSU) have advanced to the Final Four, but there has never been a No. 7, 9 or 10 seed make it in that time.
The No. 11 seed is 26-63 in the first round and 11-15 in the second.
The bottom seeds, seeds 13-16, have faired poorly in the tournament, having won a meager six second round games in the past 22 years (1985-2006).
Cleveland St. in 1986 and Chattanooga in 1997 are the only 14 seeds that have reached the Sweet 16.