Through the Land of the Giants: The psychology of Cinderella and the improbable run of George Mason

Explain this. A team from the Colonial Athletic Association ekes into the NCAA tournament with a 23-7 record, suddenly becomes a giant killer, makes the Final Four, and is never seen or heard from again.

Sigmund Freud? Bueller?

Every year, a psychological phenomenon occurs in late March and early April. Good teams get bounced from the NCAA tournament on Day 1 (ahem, Virginia) and teams like University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC) and Loyola-Chicago make an inexplicable run to the Sweet 16 and beyond. Brackets are busted and minds are blown. Most of it doesn’t make any sense.

It’s called March “Madness” for a reason, folks.

Seriously, can anyone explain how the UMBC Terriers and the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers went nuts in last year’s tournament? My bracket looked like Barney Fife’s hair as he was trying to recite the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. I mean, UMBC, a 16-seed, knocked off No. 1 Virginia, and then Loyola quickly one-upped them and darn near made it to the title game. Neither team was very good, honestly, but something happened in the tournament. They started to believe.

Which brings us to George Mason, one of the biggest and best Cinderella stories in tournament history.

Photo courtesy George Mason University

What do Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State, UConn, and the Virginia Declaration of Rights have in common?

The answer: George Mason.

George Mason, the little-known basketball school hailing from Fairfax, Virginia. George Mason, the team from the Colonial Athletic Association that almost didn’t make it to the tournament but received an at-large bid after losing to, of all teams Hofstra, in the semis of the conference tournament. George Mason, coached by Jim Larrañaga, who had had up-and-down success in the eight years since taking over at the helm in 1997-98.

George Mason, the team with players you hadn’t heard of then and don’t remember now.

See if any of these names ring a bell: Jai Lewis, Tony Skinn, Lamar Butler, Will Thomas or Folarin Campbell. Not exactly players who regularly pack a suitcase for NBA All-Star weekend.

Lamar Butler

So they did make it to the tournament and faced Michigan State in the first round in Dayton, Ohio. Before the game, Larranaga told his team, “Have a ball.” And because they physically manhandled the Spartans on the interior en route to a 75-65 victory, they did.

Next up was North Carolina, the defending national champion featuring Tyler Hansbrough and Danny Green. No problem. For Mason, the formula was the same: dominate the inside and play tenacious defense—only this time Larranaga installed a zone that perplexed the Tar Heels in the first half after jumping out to a 16-2 advantage. Mason hung on for a 65-60 final, and it was onto the Sweet 16 to face the Wichita State Shockers.

Mason had two advantages going into the game with Wichita State. First, the matchup was played much closer to home. It was held at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., a 35-minute ride from Fairfax. Secondly, George Mason had the luxury of familiarity. It had already beaten the Shockers on their home floor back on February 16. All of that rolled up into a 63-55 win for the Patriots.

So for the first three games of the tournament, Mason held its opponents to 65, 60, and 55 points. Impressive defense, to be sure. It would need another outstanding defensive performance against the next Goliath standing it its way: the UConn Huskies.

While for George Mason this Elite Eight game did not mimic its predecessors in terms of defensive prowess, this was probably GMU’s most impressive victory of the tournament. This was a UConn team that romped through the regular season with a 27-2 record, losing only to Villanova and Marquette. This was a UConn team featuring Rudy Gay and Josh Boone. And this was a UConn team that was a two-time national champion under head coach Jim Calhoun.

No matter. Mason disposed of it anyway.

Mason celebrating after the UConn win | Courtesy George Mason Athletics

It took OT, but the Patriots held on for an 86-84 victory. After the game, Calhoun showed his class: “I feel so good, through my own sadness, for Jim Larranaga,” he said.

On to Indy, and the Final Four. Like an introvert in an extrovert convention, Mason didn’t belong. On 99.999999 percent of America’s brackets, the Final Four line did not read GEORGE MASON in pencil or ink.

Yet here they were. Improbably. Impeccably.

And although the Patriots’ run came to an end against Billy Donovan and the Florida Gators, who would march on to back-to-back national titles, George Mason gave America something to smile about.

“What they’ve been able to do this year is great for basketball,” said Donovan after the game. “Most teams don’t get a chance to experience what they’ve been able to experience. In this tournament, they were able to inspire a lot of people.”

In the end, what George Mason means is that great things can be accomplished if you truly believe. H&A


Cover photo: Coach Jim Larranaga | Courtesy George Mason Athletics 


Al Blanton

Al Blanton

Born in Jasper, Alabama, Al is the owner and publisher of Blanton Media Group.
Al Blanton

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