The Game of a Lifetime
George Mason solidifies this as a tournament for the ages
By Adam Hoff
I’ve been watching the NCAA Tournament since I was eight years old. I’ve seen 17 of the last 18 national titles games and can rattle off the winners of each in the time it took to write this sentence. I’ve won pools and correctly predicted national champions and stayed home “sick” to watch the first round games, and now I even get to write about March Madness for a fantastic website. My own personal history with this tournament is rich and my connection to it is deeper than pretty much any other sporting event.
I remember every Final Four from the past two decades like it happened yesterday. Mike Bibby leading Arizona on an improbable upset binge of one top seed after another. UNLV destroying everyone in its path like some sort of terrifying army of the middle ages. Kentucky dominating. Michigan State prevailing. Maryland persevering. Keith Smart and the Fab Five and Danny Manning and Grant Hill and ‘Melo and Roy Williams. I remember all of it.
That is why I can honestly and safely say that the George Mason victory over UConn on Sunday afternoon was the greatest NCAA Tournament game I have ever seen.
Consider the following factors:
1. This was the game they were “supposed to lose.” We’ve had mid-majors reach the Elite Eight before, but that round has always been death valley for the little guy. Teams like Gonzaga in 1999 and Kent State in 2002 pulled off improbable runs to the regional final, but were dispatched by the champ (UConn) and runner-up (Indiana), respectively. Some feel that the underdog is tired from battling uphill, others think it is the quick turnaround from Sweet 16 to Elite Eight that leaves them underprepared. Sometimes it is simply a case of running up against a better, hotter team. For whatever reason, taking that last step to the Final Four has proved not only difficult, but impossible for mid-major teams. Therefore, it certainly felt like George Mason had already played out the string, particularly given the fact that they played Wichita State in the regional semifinal. It had all the makings of a “isn’t that great, at least one mid-major will reach the Elite Eight” matchup. The guys on CBS went as far as to say that the winner would go no further. I know it sounds weird, but other than beating UConn as a 16 seed, there isn’t another scenario where a George Mason win would have been more unlikely or more incredible.
2. Who they had already played. Mid-major Public Enemy Number One, Billy Packer, said it best when he stated that any team that could beat Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State, and UConn deserved respect, no matter who they were. Before playing UConn, George Mason had already defeated the previous NCAA champs, half of last year’s Final Four, and a team that they had already played in a tough non-conference game earlier in the season. They hadn’t caught a break yet, especially considering that Wichita State was a much better team than 2 seed Tennessee. Often surprise teams have reached the Elite Eight by beating overrated teams and other upset winners along the way. The Patriots beat a team with three future NBA players (Michigan State), one of the hottest teams in the country (UNC), and the mid-major that looked the most dominant during the first weekend (Wichita State). Oh yeah, and some school called UConn. Speaking of that …
3. That is was UConn. Even though the Huskies should have lost to UW (and would of, had it not been for highly suspect officiating) and were exposed in this tournament as the kind of team that thought they were too cool for school and could just switch it on and off, there is no denying that they were the bullies of this field. Duke was too small and too reliant on Redick. Memphis was suspect shooting the ball (confirmed in the UCLA debacle). Texas never really came together this year. Villanova played with four starting guards. In fact, other than UConn, there really weren’t any “oh great, they are going to win it all” type of teams. I remember telling my Dad that if Duke and UConn were both knocked out, it would indeed be the most wide-open field of all time. Now look: UCLA is the highest seeded team left and they haven’t even played well. No matter who wins it all at this point, it will go down as a big surprise. As for George Mason, they did the whole country a favor by belting the bullies right in the mouth. They faced a team that was big, athletic, talented, and successful. For all UConn’s attitude, they won over 30 games this year and seemingly always found a way to win. We focus on how annoyingly nonchalant UConn was during the tournament, but there is no doubting what a feat it was knocking them out.
4. The quality of the game. The best thing about this upset is that it wasn’t your typical Cinderella story. It wasn’t a fortuitous call or a lucky shot or even a poor performance by UConn that brought victory to George Mason, it was just tremendous play on the court. In fact, UConn played its best game of the tournament, the close calls usually went to the Huskies, and the lucky shot was courtesy of one Denham Brown, who sent the game into overtime with his spinning, bouncing layup at the buzzer. If anything, it was UConn that got all the usual breaks that occur when a team springs a gargantuan upset. No, George Mason didn’t back into anything, nor did they pull off any kind of miracle. They just played a fantastic game. There were two stretches in the game – after the Patriots had tied it in regulation and at the start of overtime – when George Mason needed to score literally every time down the court in order to stave off defeat … and they did. It was threes and pull-up jumpers and turnarounds and baseline drives. It was Lamar Butler one minute, then Folarin Campbell, then Jai Lewis, then Tony Skinn, then Will Thomas. All five Mason starters took turns coming up big time and time again. If not for the faulty free throw shooting, you could argue that the Patriots played a flawless second half.
5. The suspense. I would have preferred for George Mason to salt the game away with free throws in regulation, but there is no denying that the tying layup and near-miss game winning three by Brown added to the drama of the event. It was heart-stopping action and it made for one of the most memorable, exciting games in recent memory.
6. The crowd. It was probably unfair that UConn had to play a road game as a top seed, but then again, Memphis got the same bad break going to Oakland to play UCLA. But there is no denying that the partisan crowd made this more fun. The fans were going crazy. The level of emotion in the building was like no other tourney game that I can remember, and it gave the event the feel of one of those epic Duke-North Carolina games, where the home crowd is just living and dying with every play. Plus, when they chanted “Packer Sucks!” over and over, that was pretty sweet too. Hey, Billy Packer, try watching some of these teams play next year so that you can avoid being taunted by 20,000 fans.
7. The name. Some of you may know that I am a huge show of the show “24.” Although I have been dismayed by the recent demise of a few main characters, I still love it. And I can’t help but note that George Mason was the name of one of the original characters on the show. In fact, I remember joking with my brother that I had taken Michigan State to the Elite Eight despite the fact that I “hated to pick against the team named after the American hero who bravely piloted a nuclear bomb into the Mojave Desert while dying of radiation poisoning.” Obviously, the school is named after the “other” George Mason, but hey, I liked the subplot. And it taught me to never again pick against a school that shares a name with a fictional character from an awesome TV show. In fact, let that be a lesson to all of you.
For all those reasons and more, I felt that this was the best tournament game I’ve ever seen. I was more than happy to rip up my bracket (a UConn title would have left me looking pretty good in a number of pools) and just revel in the joy of college basketball. When you consider the number of buzzer beaters and thrilling games, the magnitude of the George Mason adventure, and the fact that tourney success is once again controlling the shape of the NBA Draft (look no further than the draft stock of Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah), there can be no doubt that this is the most exciting and fabulous tournament in years, maybe ever. Now all we have to do is kick back and enjoy a Final Four where anything can happen. We could see a team win it all without ever playing well (UCLA). We could see an all-SEC final in a year in which the SEC was supposed to be way, way down. And yes, we could see George Mason cutting down the nets next Monday night. Because after all, crazier things have NOT happened. Not until now.
Adam Hoff is a columnist for the Webby-winning WhatifSports.com.