11th Heaven

Taking March Madness to a new level, 11th-seeded George Mason reached the Final Four with the most improbable run in history. With no No. 1 seeds left and a trio of young players leading the other finalists, could the Patriots pull off the ultimate miracle in Indy?
April 02, 2006

What did you doafter UConn's final shot bounced off the rim? George Mason guard FolarinCampbell tore off his green Patriots jersey and leaped onto a table along pressrow. ("I was so excited, I would have run out there buck naked," hewould say later.) Teammates Lamar Butler and Tony Skinn joined him in aninstant, shouting, "Final Four!" and "We're going to Indy,baby!" Their coach, Jim Larranaga, pointed with both hands to the partisancrowd at Washington, D.C.'s Verizon Center, a frothing mass that erupted into achorus of the Bon Jovi classic Livin' on a Prayer, the Patriots' recentlyadopted theme song. In an NCAA tournament of historic surprises--not since 1980had every No. 1 seed run aground before the Final Four--11th-seeded GeorgeMason had sprung the most stunning of them all on Sunday, slaying thetop-seeded Connecticut colossus.

Let there be no doubt: No matter how they perform against Florida in thisSaturday's national semifinal in Indianapolis, the Patriots have put togetherthe most improbable Final Four run in the annals of college basketball. Whoelse can make a better argument? Not Texas Western's 1966 championship team,which was ranked No. 3 in the country going into the NCAA tournament. NotVillanova's 1985 national champs, who hailed from the Big East Conference (notexactly Cinderella-ville). Not North Carolina State's 1983 title winners, whohad already won the ACC tournament. Not even Penn and Indiana State, the lastmid-majors to make the Final Four, in 1979, when the Quakers beat No. 8 and 10seeds and the Sycamores had Larry Bird. In today's 65-team NCAA tournament,George Mason's achievement--a suburban commuter school winning four straightgames against national heavyweights--ranks among the most remarkable feats inmodern team sports.

How do you becomeAmerica's Team in the span of one soul-stirring fortnight? Well, you start bybarely securing a controversial at-large bid after losing to Hofstra in thesemifinals of the Colonial Athletic Association tournament. Then you beat No.6-seeded Michigan State despite missing your second-leading scorer (Skinn, whowas suspended for one game after the conference tournament for punching aHofstra player in the groin). Then you pick off third-seeded North Carolina,the defending national champion, after overcoming a 16-2 deficit. Then you sinkNo. 7 seed Wichita State, a fellow mid-major arriviste fresh off its own upsetof second-seeded Tennessee. And finally, most improbably of all, you eliminatetop-seeded UConn, the prohibitive title favorite, by surviving a heart-stoppingovertime--and Denham Brown's last-second three-point attempt--to produce themost shocking tournament score in decades: George Mason 86, UConn 84.

At week's end thePatriots' list of victims numbered the past two national champions, NorthCarolina and UConn, and, with Michigan State, three title winners from thisdecade. "This is something I've tried to do for 20 years," saysLarranaga, a mid-major grinder since 1986 who had never won an NCAA tournamentgame as a head coach until this season. "When you finally get there as anat-large team and advance past the first round, you're so excited, you justwant the magic carpet ride to continue. The Final Four is the mecca of collegebasketball, the focal point of what March Madness is all about."

Last Saturdaynight, only two hours after nodding off during an interview with SI, anexhausted Larranaga was seated at a computer in the lobby of the CrystalGateway Marriott in Arlington, Va., printing out stat sheets in preparation forthe UConn game. They came courtesy of his sons, 31-year-old Jay and 25-year-oldJon, who both played for Larranaga in college and serve as a hoops supportsystem for their pops, even though Jay is now a professional player in Italyand Jon works in Washington, D.C. During the North Carolina game, Jon was inthe stands at the University of Dayton Arena speaking constantly on hiscellphone with a frantic Jay, who was watching the Internet broadcast in Naplesand pleading (fruitlessly) for his brother to run down to the bench and passalong instructions to their dad. (When they run the screen-and-roll, don't havethe guys flash high!) After that upset Jim and Jon walked out to a quiet cornerof the arena, and the three Larranaga men shared a tearful moment on thephone.

"They grew upin a basketball family. They saw the craziness, the hours spent onrecruiting," says Jim, who would bring his sons along on recruiting tripsto see such high school stars as Alonzo Mourning and Eric Montross--as well asmid-major targets nobody had heard of.

At 5 a.m. lastSaturday, unable to sleep after his team's win over Wichita State, Larranagacalled Jay to discuss UConn. "He starts telling me things and says, 'Areyou writing this down?'" Larranaga recalled later that day. "So this iswhat he told me. It's so damn good." He pulled out three hand-scribbledPost-It notes and read aloud: "The key is winning the first half. The threegames they lost, they were behind at the half. Second, Marcus Williams is theonly guy on the team with a positive assist-to-turnover ratio, so you have tofigure out how to reduce his effectiveness. Third, down the stretch Josh Booneshoots 55 percent from the foul line and Rudy Gay shoots 55 percent in the lastfive minutes. Fourth, Rashad Anderson is their main three-point shooter, sodon't let him get going. And finally, turn them over. They had 26 turnoverslast night [against Washington], so change up your defenses."

In the end thePatriots somehow toppled UConn despite achieving almost none of Jay's goals.They fell behind by as many as 12 points and trailed 43-34 at halftime. Theycouldn't rattle the Huskies, who committed only nine turnovers. And theyweren't able to slow down Williams, who finished with 13 points and 11 assists.But they did limit Anderson to 2-for-8 three-point shooting, and even afterBrown saved UConn with a game-tying, buzzer-beating reverse layup at the end ofregulation, the Patriots refused to yield in overtime. Thanks to clutch basketsby forward Will Thomas, Butler and Campbell, in fact, they never trailedagain.

It was a stunningdisplay of onions, as CBS roundball poet Bill Raftery used to say. "Thisteam is so poised, I don't need to say anything as a leader," said Butler,the jovial senior guard whose charisma Larranaga likens to Sugar Ray Leonard's."We're aware how big this is, but it's not affecting us."

Indeed, GeorgeMason was able to enjoy the moment and keep its focus in the media maelstromlast week, all while maintaining a sense of humor that stood in stark contrastto the joylessness in the UConn camp. When the Patriots were shown last week'sissue of SI, which featured Butler on a regional cover, they were convinced atfirst that it was a put-on. ("We thought Lamar's dad might have put ittogether or something," cracked swingman Gabe Norwood.) Meanwhile,Larranaga held the team's regular mood-lightening baseball game at the end ofan early-week practice, and he took advantage of the Huskies' inability to nameGeorge Mason's league by telling his players in his Sunday pregame talk thatthe CAA now stood for the "Connecticut Assassin Association."

A Bronx native whocan produce an ear-splitting whistle to get his players' attention, the57-year-old Larranaga plays the psychology game both ways. Last spring, after a16-13 season plagued by subpar defense and rebounding, he announced that theplayers would begin daily 6 a.m. lifting sessions. For 40 minutes--the lengthof a game--they toiled without music, conversation or water breaks. (Larranagawore a shirt and tie each morning to drive home the all-business theme.) Healso brought in sports psychologist Bob Rotella to work with the Patriots onpositive thinking. Once the NCAA tournament began, Larranaga pushed all theright motivational buttons, such as cuing up the rap track Kryptonite by thePurple Ribbon All-Stars in the locker room before the upset of North Carolina.If the Tar Heels were Supermen, Larranaga told his players, "we're going tobe their kryptonite."

On Sunday, ofcourse, it was UConn's turn to get the same treatment. By the time the Patriotsreturned to their Fairfax, Va., campus, a raucous crowd was being treated to afireworks extravaganza worthy of the Fourth of July. Inside the Patriot Center,more than 6,000 supporters cheered as senior forward Jai Lewis, wearing one ofthe cut-down game nets as a necklace, carried the trophy from the Washington,D.C., Regional around the arena floor in a victory lap with his teammates.Meanwhile, Larranaga led the crowd in a group dance to Y.M.C.A. and posed forpictures with cheerleaders, fans and even a tiara-wearing Miss Virginia."From the bottom of my heart and on behalf of this basketball team, thankyou for coming tonight," he finally announced. "Drive home safely, andwe'll see you in Indy!"

And with that, theunlikeliest ride in NCAA tournament history headed west, straight into the landof Hoosiers.

> SI.COM
More Final Four coverage, including exclusive daily analysis from Indy, atSI.com/collegebasketball.

SI asked four assistant coaches who had prepared a gameplan against one of the Final Four teams to share their insights. They wereguaranteed anonymity in exchange for their candor.

HOW TO BEAT LSU

WHEN THE TIGERS HAVE THE BALL: "More than anything,you have to keep them off the glass. They feed off second-chance points, andoffensive rebounding is a big part of what they do, whether you're in zone orin man. You must also stop them in transition. They can turn long rebounds orturnovers into dunks and feed off that momentum. [In the half-court] you haveto shut down the paint and make them hit shots from outside. With the exceptionof Darrel Mitchell, they don't have guys who can hit the perimetershot."

ATTACKING THE TIGERS: "With Tyrus Thomas comingfrom the weak side to help block shots, the off side has to attack them on theglass. You can't panic when you get the ball inside. Thomas and [Glen] Daviscan intimidate you with their shot blocking if you let them."

X FACTOR: "Thomas is a tough box-out. He'sextremely athletic and exceptionally quick off the floor. You have to knowwhere he is at all times and put a body on him when the shot goes up. You can'tlet him get a running start on you, or he'll make a play on the offensiveglass. We liken LSU's athleticism to Memphis's. The Tigers are an extremelylong team."

HOW TO BEAT UCLA

WHEN THE BRUINS HAVE THE BALL: "They run a lot ofhigh pick-and-rolls for Jordan Farmar and let him make plays. Their big men aremuch more effective when Farmar or their other point guard, Darren Collison,gets into the lane and dishes off than when they post up. Arron Afflalo cancreate when the offense breaks down. If he's hitting that step-back jumper,watch out. The best approach is to guard them aggressively on the perimeter andtake your chances when they throw it inside to their bigs."

ATTACKING THE BRUINS: "They've become an amazingdefensive team. Afflalo is as good an on-ball defender as there is. You have topush the ball downcourt because they're very tough when they have time to setup in the half-court. There's no obvious place to attack because they're sogood at helping out when a teammate gets beat. Just hope that the refs arecalling a tight game, because they are very physical on defense."

X FACTOR: "It's no fun to play UCLA, so accept thefact that it's not going to be a pretty game and be prepared to grind it out.They frustrate teams to the point that they're whining to the officials orgetting annoyed with each other. Don't let them win that mental game, or you'rein big trouble."

HOW TO BEAT GEORGE MASON

WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL: "Their threeguards are tough because they're multidimensional, smart players. All three candrive by you and make outside shots. They're hard to guard because they spaceyou really well, and they make the right pass. Their offense is so democraticin terms of shot distribution, you have to help off whichever perimeter guyisn't having a good day. If there's one guy who can get it going, it's LamarButler. He's done it before, and he seems to be most confident of the threeguards. On the inside, their big guys are both crafty scorers. Jai Lewis useshis bulk well, and Will Thomas uses his length to score on you."

ATTACKING THE PATRIOTS: "Get the bigs in foultrouble; they don't have that much inside depth coming off the bench. If youhave size inside, you can score over them because they're not the tallestpair."

X FACTOR: "If the big guys make foul shots, lookout, because they have the capability of getting to the line a lot. Lewis andThomas were 2 for 10 and 4 for 9 [respectively] in the tournament before theUConn game, and they combined to make 11 of 18 against the Huskies, which forthem is great."

HOW TO BEAT FLORIDA

WHEN THE GATORS HAVE THE BALL: "They are very goodat getting out and scoring easy buckets, so you have to try to stop theirtransition. In the half-court, contest their first shot and don't give themanother one. Try to take away the bigs, Joakim Noah and Al Horford. They're sobalanced offensively that you can't cheat off anyone. On the perimeter youcan't leave Lee Humphrey; that's a rule. They set a lot of down screens forCorey Brewer, who is very good at reading screens. You need to change yourdefensive looks to disrupt his rhythm."

ATTACKING THE GATORS: "They will play behind you,so you can get the ball into the post. The problem is, they are so big andtheir timing is so good that they will disrupt a lot of what you're doing. Evenso, you have to try to dump the ball inside, get it into the heart of theirdefense and then find guys on the perimeter. Or you can make moves right attheir big men. What you can't do is just rely on your perimeter game."

X FACTOR: "Brewer. When he is making plays andknocking down shots, it opens up everything else for the guys inside, and thatmakes the Gators extremely tough to beat."

PHOTOPhotograph by John BieverPARTYCRASHERS - While Lewis (55) was gaining the upper hand against UConn's vauntedfrontcourt--and scoring a game-high 20 points--fans at George Mason's studentunion raised the roof. PHOTOJOHN HEALEY (INSET)[See caption above] PHOTOJOHN BIEVER (CAMPBELL)HARDCHARGING - Campbell (42), who scored several clutch baskets, didn't hold backon the Huskies. PHOTOBOB ROSATO (DAVIS)Davis PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH (FARMAR)Farmar PHOTOJOHN BIEVER (BUTLER)Butler PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO (BREWER)Brewer

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)