A sign in the stands said what Jim Larranaga and his Patriots wouldn't.
``George Mason,'' it read, ``is this year's George Mason.''
Not so fast.
``I saw it, of course, and that was neat,'' Larranaga said over the phone Tuesday afternoon. ``But ...''
But he's not sure he wants to burden any team, especially his own, with those kind of expectations.
What happened to George Mason in the NCAA tournament in 2006 hadn't happened in more than a quarter-century. No school outside the power conferences had so much as stuck a toe across the threshold of the Final Four since 1979. But when the tournament selection committee cracked the door open for a few mid-majors two years ago, the Patriots slipped in with a controversial at-large bid as a No. 11 seed, then proceeded to blow up every office pool in America by taking down Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut before losing to eventual champion Florida in the semifinal round.
``So now everybody that isn't too busy trying to figure out whether their own team is off the bubble,'' Larranaga chuckled softly, ``is going to spend the next week or so trying to pick the next George Mason.''
Mary in the Colonial Athletic Association championship game and locking up the league's automatic bid. He hadn't slept a wink since.
He gave his staff some preliminary scouting assignments, gave his team the day off, then handled two dozen interviews and planned to watch at least one game - the low-wattage Horizon, Summit and Sun Belt leagues all had finals on tap - before going to bed.
Wednesday was already filled up with recruiting visits. As if anyone needed reminding, that's how George Mason became ``George Mason'' in the first place.
A handful of high school players dominate the recruiting news, and none of them are on Larranaga's itinerary. Those kids still choose the big programs - they just don't stay as long. It's the ones who used to sit behind them waiting for their chance who are likely to find Larranaga and other enterprising coaches from the mid-majors sitting across from them in their living rooms.
ampbell and 6-11 Will Thomas, an inside-outside combination that Larranaga calls ``our Magic Johnson'' and ``our Bill Russell'' - and a handful of upperclassmen who were along for the ride.
``People forget it's always been that way, that with the exception of top-10 talents like Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant and Greg Oden, most kids stick around for four years,'' Larranaga said.
What's changed, however, is this: with fewer scholarships, more TV exposure for midlevel programs and more attention paid to high school and summer league games, the talent and experience gap has been closing fast.
When the NCAA selection committee began handing out bracket spots to the George Masons of college basketball instead of second-tier teams from the power conference, they weren't counting on a revolution to make them look smart, just an evolution.
But committee members aren't kidding themselves, either. They know the final rungs of the tournament ladder belong to the big guys. As the field narrows, the gaps in talent, pedigree, budget and NBA alums only grows wider. That's what makes this week special. It's a chance for the low- and mid-majors to stage their own championship week, to get stories like George Mason, Drake, Cornell and Siena out there before the power conference championships kick into high gear.
``It's tremendous exposure and a chance for coaches, players, fans and even some towns to celebrate what they've accomplished. But let's be honest, most of us are going to have a hard time topping what we did this week,'' Larranaga said.
Just in case, though, he's already got his staff pointing toward Selection Sunday. He figures George Mason will be seeded between Nos. 12-14 and assigned each assistant a power conference to begin scouting, since he thinks that's where most of the 3, 4 and 5 seeds will be drawn from.
So who will be this year's George Mason?
``If you're talking about someone coming in as a No. 11 seed, being the underdog in every game and getting to the Final Four, that's an almost-impossible pick. But if you want a mid-major who could surprise people, there's Butler, Gonzaga, South Alabama, VCU - they all qualify.''
Pressed for just one team, Larranaga finally settled on Davidson College, where he once worked as an assistant and the coach, Bob McKillop, is a good pal.
``They're going to be a hard out for anyone in the tournament,'' he said. ``Just like we were.''
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org

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