ATLANTA -- George Mason may be two seasons removed from its historic Final Four run, but the Patriots still have a big target on their back.
That was evident on Wednesday afternoon, when the Colonial Athletic favorites were stunned at the buzzer 66-64 by Georgia State, a team that will more than likely finish in the basement of the league.
"Once you see George Mason [on the jersey], you know about the Final Four and you see a good team," said senior Folarin Campbell, one of two starters remaining from the '06 squad. "Even though we are not defending the Final Four [appearance], we're still picked No. 1 in our conference. I think everybody is coming for us."
Georgia State had been struggling as first-year coach Rod Barnes navigates his way while waiting for four transfers to become eligible next year. The Panthers were 3-8 entering the game with an RPI north of 300. But, led by Leonard Mendez's 19 points, the Panthers had their best shooting game of the season, hitting 55 percent and erasing a 13-point halftime deficit. Mendez capped his 19-point afternoon with an off-balance 17-footer that sent his team into a mad pigpile at the Georgia State Sports Arena.
"It was a great win for our program," Georgia State coach Rod Barnes said.
While expectations for George Mason were realistically tempered at the beginning of last season, the team still had to endure the pressure of trying to live up to its new-found fame. A Final Four banner was proudly hung in the Patriot Center, record crowds came to see what this team was all about and Mason had more regular season television exposure than it ever before. Newcomers Darryl Monroe, Dre Smith and Louis Birdsong were trying to follow a legend built in large part by three starters who had departed.
"I remember after the Wichita State game, Darryl Monroe told me he was nervous because that was the largest crowd he'd ever played in front of and the game was on national TV," coach Jim Larranaga said. "He said, 'I couldn't tell you what my name was.'"
Mason had an uneven season in 2006-07, then turned it on in the CAA tournament and came within minutes of getting back to the NCAA tournament. While there was clear disappointment after the Patriots lost to VCU in the conference finals, there was some relief that The Year After was finally over.
"I was new coming in, so there was a little pressure on me because you don't want to be one of the reasons the team doesn't do as well and go to the Final Four," Smith said.
The Final Four pressure has been replaced by expectations to win the conference this year. But Mason lost Monroe for the season to a toe injury, and senior point guard Jordan Carter has missed three straight games with an injured foot. The veteran team is not so veteran anymore, and it showed on Wednesday.
"Because of our run in 2006, we don't get anybody's 'B' or 'C' game," Larranaga said. "We get everybody's 'A' game."
While the first reaction by many college hoops analysts to Eddie Sutton's decision to take over at San Francisco was wonder why the future Hall of Famer was coming out of retirement, the more pressing question is, why is San Francisco hiring him?
Setting aside the murky explanations of coach Jesse Evans' "leave of absence" -- which are unusual enough -- what is USF athletic director Debra Gore-Mann think she is going to accomplish by hiring a retired coach who knows little about the players, program or conference and is going to leave after three months? Recruiting is clearly going to suffer with Sutton's lack of commitment beyond this season -- so it is hard to say the move is good for the future of the program. As for the present, the current players were not recruited by Sutton and will be forced to learn a new system and coaching style on the fly during the conference season.
So if there are no tangible benefits for the future of the program or the current season, why would Gore-Mann make this move? She has declined to comment on the reasons for Evans' leave of absence, and Evans has said there was no wrongdoing, so what's the deal? Gore-Mann owes her Dons fans a clearer explanation.
Sutton's motives are obvious. He wants 800 career wins. A DUI forced him to retire from Oklahoma State with 798 wins in 2006, and he wants to join Bob Knight, Dean Smith, Adolph Rupp and Jim Phelan in the 800-club. He freely admits it, though he has also said how much he misses the day-to-day coaching of the game he loves.
The pursuit of 800 wins, especially when Sutton only needs two, is not going to generate much fanfare for the San Francisco program. Which brings us back to the original question: What is in this deal for San Francisco?
San Diego's Devin Ginty lived the walk-on dream in San Diego's shocking 81-72 win at Kentucky last week. Ginty, who averaged 2.7 minutes per game entering the contest, played 29 minutes and scored 18 points in fabled Rupp Arena. He did not miss a shot on the day, hitting all four three-pointers, one two-pointer and four free throws as the Toreros recorded what coach Bill Grier called "the biggest win in the history of the school."
"This is one of the greatest atmospheres in college basketball, and it was an unbelievable opportunity to play here," Ginty told TheSan Diego Union-Tribune. "It was great to come out with a win, especially a great team win. This is great for our program."
The glory was short-lived for both Ginty and San Diego. Ginty shot 1-for-4 from the three-point-range in his next game as San Diego fell to Marshall 76-60.
Drake extended its winning streak to 10 games with a 61-51 win over Southern Illinois, the preseason Missouri Valley Conference favorites. The Bulldogs were led by sophomore Josh Young, who matched a season-high with 24 points. Drake, which recorded its first winning season in 20 years last year, has exceeded expectations under first-year coach Keno Davis and will be in the mix in the rugged MVC.
Drake drew a season-high 6,821 fans for the showdown with Southern Illinois, which dropped to a surprising 6-7 and 1-1 in the MVC. The Salukis' streak of six straight NCAA tournaments looks like it will end unless SIU can win the conference tournament in St. Louis at season's end.
After a two-week vacation, we're down to two teams nationally who are still looking for that elusive 'W' -- New Jersey Institute of Technology and Grambling. Grambling has played less than half (7) of the games NJIT (16) has played and only has a 25-game schedule. The Tigers host Alabama State (4-5) on Saturday night, a team it beat last March. NJIT travels to Penn (4-6) on Saturday night.