At a mid-major where one Final Four trip is a monumental achievement, five years was deemed a long enough wait to launch an anniversary celebration of George Mason's magical run to the Final Four in 2006. During five home games this season the team gave away bobblehead dolls of its 2005--06 starters, whose best Cinderella poses were frozen permanently in polyresin. On Dec. 4, for example, fans received a replica of guard Tony Skinn giving the four-fingered salute he flourished after the Patriots' 86--84 upset of UConn in the Elite Eight, and before last Saturday's 82--68 win over James Madison, 1,000 lucky attendees received forward Will Thomas unleashing his skyward scream.
Now the Patriots, stocked with players who were persuaded to come to Fairfax, Va., largely because of that Final Four run, are 21--5 (13--2 in the Colonial Athletic Association) and nationally relevant again.
While the '06 team, as coach Jim Larranaga puts it, "was made up of kids from the neighborhood"—Virginia and Maryland—he widened his net for his 2007--09 recruiting classes. Current perimeter starters Cam Long (a senior) and Luke Hancock (a sophomore) played their high school hoops in Virginia, but junior point guard Andre Cornelius is from Charlotte, starting junior forward Mike Morrison hails from St. Petersburg, and junior power forward Ryan Pearson is from Brooklyn.
Pearson has the requisite backstory and style to become an NCAA tournament darling: He overcame a terrible accident—his right leg was run over by a car when he was 11, leaving him with a 32-staple scar and a left leg that's one inch longer—to become a 14.4-point and 6.3-rebound star for George Mason.
The Patriots have the best efficiency margin (plus-0.21 points per possession) of any CAA team over the past five seasons, suggesting they could be among the scariest midmajors should they crack the field of 68. This is a much better transition-scoring team than it was in '06; according to Synergy Sports Technology the Patriots are the third most efficient fast-break team in the nation, at 1.31 points per possession.
Larranaga, in his 14th season, credits this squad's success to the bonding the players did on an August exhibition tour of Italy. "They like to share the ball with their friends," he says, "so they always find the open man." And they all have the same goal. In the preseason Larranaga told them, "Begin with the end in mind." The end, he said, was a CAA title. But this team has been so dominant, and its predecessors raised the bar so high, that it can't help but dream bigger.
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RAFAEL SUANES/US PRESSWIRE (LONG)
UPWARDLY MOBILE Long (20) leads the Patriots in points (15.4) and steals (1.4).