George Mason's stunning, amazing run through the tournament continues. We have now knocked out the last two champs and the winners of 3 of the last 6. Stunning, breathtaking results, and magical games. Yesterday was probably still the first chance most of the country had to see us play, as from what I read, CBS has been broadcasting out games to a minuscule portion of the country. There's plenty of room on the bandwagon still, so welcome aboard (I'm proud to say that I've been a season-ticket holder for a few years now).
A few quick observations for those who haven't seen GMU much this year:
1. Team: I love that this team is a real team. These guys have absolute faith and confidence in each other and they play selflessly and with full faith and respect for each other. In four games, Jai Lewis's 20 yesterday was the first game in the tournament where one of our guys scored 20 or more (and he only had 2 points on Friday night). These are five starters, all with above-average ability whose skills and personalities complement each other well. On any given night, any of the starters can lead the team (in the four games in the tournament, three different guys have been the top game scorers). Any of the five starters can take (and make) the big shot and each player has confidence in each other that they will make it. On Friday the guards carried GMU because Wichita State collapsed on the big men; yesterday the big men carried GMU because UConn pressured the guards. Everybody plays defense and works hard on the boards. It is pretty darn rare in modern sports to see such a well-balanced and selfless team, but it sure has worked. In comparison, at one point this weekend I actually heard John Calipari complimenting Carney for being willing to share the ball even though he was auditioning for a lottery pick. He gets credit for passing the ball to his teammates?
2. Coach L: What can you say about Larranaga? A brilliant coach and obviously a remarkable man. My wife insists that this is all karma for him being willing to do the right thing with Tony Skinn in that first game. Regardless of what it is, it is clear that his players respect and listen to him. Plus, he is a brilliant game coach. Listening to him after the game yesterday, I was dazzled by his game plan--he observed that on Friday Wichita was going to collapse inside and so the guards would get open three-point looks, which they did. Then he (and his sons) figured out that Sunday UConn would not collapse, but would pressure the guards and play behind our big guys, so that the guards should throw it inside and let Lewis and Thomas decide what to do with the ball. And his players are well-coached to stick with and execute the game plan, rather than breaking down. As far as what I could tell, and judging by Calhoun's comments at halftime, UConn's strategy for dealing with out big men was "block their shots" (Calhoun said at halftime his big guys said "What should we do with these guys" and Calhoun said "Block their shots"). At some point I would've thought there would be a Plan B.
3. Confidence: I mentioned to Steve Teles in an email the other day that I had never seen a team in George Mason's position appear so composed and confident going into this weekend's game. Even when we were down by double-digits to UNC and UConn we didn't panic and after the heart-breaking tie at the end of regulation last night we didn't collapse, but came right out in OT, stopped them, and then scored the first basket of overtime. This is obviously a combination of Coach Larranaga, the character of the kids he has recruited, and the way that they have developed. The Tony Skinn suspension really showed a lot about how this team wants to win. They don't preen or talk trash. They haven't boasted about being an upset or cinderella. They've just gone out and had faith in themselves, their teammates, and their system. One thing I love about these kids is that there is no chest-thumping or "look at me" behaviour, but just pure, unbridled joy of playing and winning. And the amazing thing is that in three of four games it is only because we have missed free throws down the stretch that there was even suspense at the ends of these games.
4. Surprised: To me, the win yesterday was a surprise but not a shock. Josh Wright and I went to the game Friday night and watched us dismantle Wichita State and UConn struggle with Washington (and need some timely help from the refs). Watching those games, it was clear to us that had we played UConn on Friday night, we would have beaten them, as we would have hit the open shots that Washington missed and we wouldn't have made the mental errors that Washington made. So while I was surprised, I wasn't shocked. Unfortunately our local CBS affiliate cut away from CBS's Fla-Nova halftime report, so I didn't get to see Seth Davis, who was awfully confident before the game that UConn would win. As for Mr. Billy Packer, it looked to me like he had just eaten a raw onion when he first mentioned this game.
5. Karma: What a year this has been for me--first, the Steelers win the Superbowl (as a #6 seed) and now this. I joked during the playoffs that my daughter Claire was the Steelers' secret weapon. But to have Mason make the Final Four too--apparently her powers are beyond the realm of human comprehension! And I already mentiond Larranaga and the karma there. And now Mason goes to Indianapolis for the Final Four, the home of Hoosiers.
What a ride!
Now if you'll excuse me, I have a Final Four ticket application to fax in.