Columns & Blogs

Here's hoping the Patriots pull it off

Later, Gators. Sorry, Bruins. Try again, Tigers. This Final Four belongs to the Patriots.

George Mason, the most unlikely Final Four participant ever, is irresistible. For every bracket the Patriots busted, they gained a fan.

What's not to love? Tiny George Mason, located in Fairfax, Va., toils in the Colonial Athletic Association and had a 2 percent chance of making it this far, at least according to the 2 million people who filled out brackets on CBS

They're undermanned, undersized and easily the best sports story of the year, a distinction that will be tough to top — even with eight months left in 2006.

The Patriots have taken over college basketball's marquee event and made believers out of even the most hardened souls. Like Billy Packer, the CBS blowhard who bashed the selection committee's decision to include the Patriots in the tournament.

Listening to Packer backtrack on the Patriots? Priceless.

George Mason coach Jim Larranaga has proven that college coaches don't have to be uptight, obnoxious and paranoid to succeed. Instead of berating players and officials, Larranaga whistles on the sidelines. He quotes William Jennings Bryan after games. He opens his practices — those super-secret planning sessions — to fans and media members. His team plays a variation of Wiffle ball at the end of practice to stay loose.

When senior guard Tony Skinn punched a Hofstra player in the groin during the Patriots' conference tournament loss, Larranaga immediately benched him and suspended him for one game. That game turned out to be the NCAA Tournament opener.

It didn't matter.

Larranaga acted like a college coach is supposed to, putting values ahead of victories.

It's a trait he shares with the school's namesake. George Mason, a Revolutionary War-era patriot, refused to sign the U.S. Constitution, primarily because it did not include a bill of rights, which was eventually added.

But principles and quoting old statesmen aren't supposed to make up for talent, depth or not having a player taller than 6-foot-8.

Yet Mason vanquished a physical, veteran team (Michigan State), a young-and-coming squad (North Carolina), a fellow upstart (Wichita State) and the most talented team in the nation (Connecticut) just to get here. Three national champions fell under the wide body of forward Jai Lewis and the sharp shooting of wisecracking guard Lamar Butler on the road to the Final Four.

So just how did this happen?

Well, scholarship limits — men's college teams are allowed 13 — have increased parity in the sport by stretching an already-deep talent pool. Players want to play, and if there's no more scholarships left in the ACC or the Big East, then eventually skilled performers make their way to the CAA.

Still, since the big-time programs corral all of the top talent each season, it shouldn't be enough, right?

It wouldn't. Except it's not George Mason that gets riddled by early departures to the NBA. It's the college basketball elite that constantly must reload while mid-major programs like George Mason and Wichita State keep players in the program for four years, developing cohesion and stability.

It just doesn't work that way anymore in the power conferences. Even Duke, with senior All-Americans J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams, started two freshmen, including one at point guard.

The rest of the Final Four field is a testament to youth. Florida's top four scorers are sophomores. LSU, which has just one senior, is most dependent on a sophomore (Glen "Big Baby" Davis) and a freshman (Tyrus Thomas). UCLA has 13 sophomores or freshmen on its roster and starts a pair of sophomores in the backcourt in Jordan Farmar and Arron Afflalo.

Think all four Gator sophomores will make it to their senior season in Gainesville? Think Davis and Thomas or Farmar and Affalo will finish out their eligibility as duos?

Think again.

Not that it's all bad.

After all, it opened the door for George Mason to bracket-bust its way into college basketball's grandest dance.

Now the Patriots are two wins away from really turning the sport upside down, from capping off one of the greatest underdog stories ever and from truly owning the Final Four.

Here's hoping they do so.