George Mason riding new offense, attitude to NCAA berth

Correction:

George Mason was an 11-seed during their 2006 Final Four run, not a 12-seed as originally reported. Also, coach Jim Larranaga said that he would like to recruit "one-and-done" players, but it was originally reported that he said he could.

You are almost reluctant to ask Jim Larranaga, after all that's happened in Fairfax this season, to make the case for his team getting an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. His George Mason team is riding one of the country's longest win streaks – 11 straight going into tonight's first-place Colonial Athletic Association showdown at Virginia Commonwealth, with an ESPN "Bracketbusters" game at Northern Iowa Saturday – and sports a sterling 21-5 record, the CAA regular season lead and an RPI to die for – somewhere between 22 and 28 nationally, depending on whose ratings you like. The Patriots received votes this week in the Associated Press Top 25 poll.

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Long story short

George Mason can no longer be in the running for "this year's George Mason."

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Cinderella, my butt.

"I never look at that," Larranaga said in his office Monday. "It's not my job. I'm not someone who's going to assume I know what's going on in that (selection) room. What I will say is I know you have to play well and you have to win games. You've got to compete against a high-level opponent regularly enough so that you can be evaluated correctly. If at the end of that regular season, if you have an RPI that's high enough, you're going to get consideration ... but you're not going to be looked at singularly. They're going to compare you to a lot of teams. And that's when it gets complicated."

Mason has checked off each of its coach's criteria. The Patriots haven't lost in five weeks, winning their last seven games by an average of 18 points and by 17.6 points during the 11-game streak, the longest in 27 years. They've beaten Old Dominion (ranked 44th in the country by Jeff Sagarin) and Drexel (82nd) during the streak, and they had a win at Duquesne (53rd) before the streak began. Mason's worst loss this year is probably to 14-12 Wofford, but that was in November.

And Mason can do much to set its own course this week. A win tonight at VCU, combined with an Old Dominion loss against Georgia State, will give the Patriots their first CAA regular season title in 11 years. A win Saturday at 18-9 Northern Iowa, currently tied for third in the Missouri Valley Conference, would be just the kind of late-season victory that the NCAA's Selection Committee looks upon most favorably when comparing teams for at-large bids. (The CAA is ranked 11th out of 33 conferences nationally by Sagarin, 12th by Pomeroy; the MVC is rated 13th by Sagarin, 14th by Pomeroy. You can use whatever ratings system you like; I'm just going with these two to show an across-the-board ranking.)

"I'm thinking to myself, we're playing Northern Iowa, they're a Missouri Valley team," Larranaga said. "As a committee, we need to look at these teams and see, how is the Missouri Valley compared to the CAA? Who are the matchups we could possibly look at? Oh, George Mason is playing Northern Iowa; let's take look at that game ... when we went to Wichita State in '06, they were number one in their league. We were sitting number one in our league. We went there. We were able to win that game. I can't tell you how many people said 'that's what got you into the tournament.'"

Ah, yes. That tournament.

It's been almost five years since Larranaga's Boys shocked the college basketball establishment and reached the Final Four. Mason barely made the tournament that year as an 11-seed, a development met with condescension and sneering by CBS' Billy Packer and Jim Nantz during the selection show.

But the Patriots upset Michigan State in the first round, beating the Spartans without starting guard Tony Skinn – whom Larranaga had suspended for a game after Mason's loss to Hofstra that year in the CAA semifinals, during which Skinn punched a Hofstra player in the groin. Skinn returned as Mason went on to beat North Carolina, Wichita State and Connecticut – that's Big 10, ACC, Missouri Valley and Big East in a row – to reach the national semifinal game against Florida. The Patriots' run that year led to the coining of the new phrase, "(fill in the blank) is this year's George Mason."

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