George Mason's Cinderella Story

The Final Four has been dominated by college basketball's big boys for more than a quarter of a century, with powerful teams and tournament-tested conferences gathering at the end of the season to sort out the champion.

Well, this year will be a little different.

The main culprit is George Mason, a commuter school in suburban Virginia that never had won a single game in the NCAA tournament until two weeks ago.

Also headed to the national semifinals next weekend in Indianapolis: LSU, Florida and UCLA. Like George Mason, LSU and Florida never have won an NCAA title; UCLA dominated college basketball by winning 10 in the 1960s and 1970s, but had fallen on harder times of late.

Seeded 11th in their quarter of the field, George Mason is the first team since 1986 to be slated that low and reach the Final Four. And they're the biggest outsider — no basketball tradition to speak of, not a member of a major conference, no superstar player — since Ivy League school Penn made it in 1979.

"While every available number insists this was an upset — from the Top 25 to the NCAA Tournament seedings to the recruiting ranking of each player on both rosters — the eyeballs tell you something else," writes CBS Sportsline.com's Gregg Doyel. "George Mason beat UConn because George Mason was better than UConn."

How did they do it? With a string of consistent, defensive-minded performances, the latest an 86-84 overtime victory over top-seeded Connecticut in the Washington Regional final Sunday.

"We don't mind being the Cinderella," George Mason guard Tony Skinn said.

Apparently, there was more than one pair of glass slippers lying around. This is the first time since 1980 that none of the four teams seeded No. 1 reached the Final Four.

George Mason now faces No. 4-seeded Florida, which knocked off another No. 1 seed, Villanova, 75-62 in the Minneapolis Regional final.

In next Saturday's other Final Four game, No. 4-seeded LSU will play No. 2-seeded UCLA. Led by gregarious and 310-pound Glen "Big Baby" Davis, LSU won the Oakland Regional final by beating No. 2 seed Texas 70-60 in overtime Saturday. UCLA defeated No. 1 seed Memphis 50-45 at the Atlanta Regional.

"Nobody could have predicted what we've seen — not just this afternoon, but this whole tournament," NCAA selection committee chairman Craig Littlepage said on the court after George Mason cut the nets down to celebrate. "It's affirmation that this is a great game."

As anyone who's ever participated in an NCAA pool at the office knows, there always are upsets at this event. Hence the term, "March Madness."


But it's been quite awhile since there were this many surprises.

The last time no No. 1 made the tournament's showcase was also the last year neither the Big East nor the Atlantic Coast Conference had at least one Final Four team; those high-profile leagues combined to produce the past five national champions, including the ACC's North Carolina last year, and the Big East's Connecticut in 2004.

George Mason eliminated both of those schools, despite having relatively smaller players not thought of as NBA prospects.

"They don't measure heart by inches, they don't measure courage, they don't measure basketball instinct and intelligence," said Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, whose team has three or four players probably headed to the pros.

The Patriots, he added, "are not on a magic carpet ride because there's any myth there. They are good. They are really, really good."

Perhaps, but George Mason's basketball program is certainly unheralded: The team never has been ranked in The Associated Press poll, and it lost two of its last four games before the NCAA tournament.

Its players are unheralded. Asked this weekend who recruited him out of high school, forward Will Thomas joked: "George Mason, George Mason, George Mason. I'm glad I chose George Mason."

Its conference is unheralded, too. It had been 20 years since the Colonial Athletic Association received two invitations to the NCAA tournament, and some Connecticut players weren't able to name which league the Patriots play in.

All of the above are among the reasons that some, including CBS basketball analyst Billy Packer, questioned whether George Mason deserved to go to the tournament at all. The considerable Mason cheering section at Sunday's game — played about 20 miles from the school's Fairfax, Va., campus — broke into taunting chants of "Bill-y! Pack-er!" before and after the game, even though he wasn't announcing.

When Lamar Butler hit a 3-pointer to give George Mason only its second lead of the game, at 52-51 about halfway through the second half, Connecticut called a timeout. While Patriots coach Jim Larranaga stood with his arms crossed, smiling, Butler and a couple of teammates looked up at the scoreboard, mouths open.

Perhaps they were wondering, "Can this really be happening?"

It sure was.

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