George Mason Proves It Belongs In Big Dance

INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana --- At first, they were the ugly cousin, the one who only gets invited out because someone reads the graffiti in the men's room that reads "for a good time call …." They are the gypsies in the palace, these thrill-riders from Fairfax, Virginia, but nobody is questioning whether the George Mason Patriots belong anymore. When you take a baseball bat to the kneecaps of three college basketball bluebloods over a two-week stretch, you belong. You really belong.

When they were chosen, a third team from a league whose standard issue is one invitation to the Big Dance, their bona fides were questioned by experts that considered it ridiculous that the Colonial Athletic Association could get three teams in while a certain, highly-publicized conference that has produced eight of the last 24 national champions got only four. Instead of questioning why only four from that league, the experts might want to ask themselves how it is Hofstra and Old Dominion from the CAA were left out?

The Patriots have earned their way to Saturday's semifinal game with the Florida Gators (6 p.m., CBS) because they really do believe they can win. They aren't afraid of anyone and that's unusual for eleventh-seeded teams. Low seeds usually pull off an upset or two in the NCAA Tournament but once the oxygen begins to thin out as they near the top of the mountain, they always do their best imitation of former vice presidential candidate James Stockwell and ask, "Who am I and what am I doing here?" before doing a crash and burn.

The Patriots never questioned why they were here and win or lose against the Gators, they will never stop believing that they belong or that they are capable of not only playing but beating any team in the country. They aren't the least bit intimidated by the big stage. They aren't the least bit cocky but they are loose and confident.

The source of the confidence is the coach. Maybe you never heard of Jim Larranaga before the Patriots whacked Michigan State and North Carolina, which was just before they left mighty UConn lying in a roadside ditch on their way to Indy. Maybe you should have.

Maybe you should have because Larranaga is indeed that rare coach who really is about all the right things. He doesn't just say all the right things. He really does all the right things.

You want proof?

In a CAA semifinal game, Tony Skinn, one of the Patriots' best players, sucker punched Hofstra's Leon Stokes in the groin. The zebras missed it but Larranaga only had to look at Stokes crumpled in a heap on the floor and Skinn's face to know something bad had happened. There was a minute left in the game and Mason was down by four. At that time, conventional wisdom said the Patriots had to make at least make the championship game to get in the NCAA Tournament.

"I know Tony and I knew he had done something he was ashamed of," said Larranaga at Friday's press conference at the RCA Dome. "I could see it in his face. So, I took him out of the game, did not put him back in, even though we were down four with a minute to go."

When he viewed the film of the incident, Larranaga immediately suspended Skinn for one game --- not the first game next year but the next game, which turned out to be the first game of the NCAA Tournament against Michigan State, a team that has won one national title and made it to two other Final Fours since 2000. It was a decision he made without a nanosecond of hesitation.

Can you imagine this happening at a certain school in Florida where the coach has explained his sliding scale of discipline by claiming "why there are millions of dollars involved here"?

Asked Friday if it was difficult to sit a star for a huge game, Larranaga responded, "When you asked me how difficult it was, quite frankly, I didn't think it was difficult at all. I'm not going to judge based on the circumstances. I'm not going to be influenced by what the cause and effect might be or what the consequences are. If I did that, I'd be changing my philosophy every single day. We can't live that way. We have to have a certain amount of core values that we live by.

"Tony didn't behave the way we wanted him to. He knew what was coming. I explained to the team, I'm not punishing Tony, we're disciplining him, trying to teach him something he probably already knows. But this is a reminder. You're not going to play in the first game whether we're in the NCAA Tournament or NIT. Whether we get into a post-season tournament or not, that's not what we stand for, you know that. That's not who he is. That was the point."

Skinn got the point. His teammates understood, too. Skinn and his teammates got the message because they have a coach who doesn't waver. There is no sliding scale of justice and there are no prayers for misdemeanors. There is right and there is wrong. You always do the right thing.

"Circumstances do not dictate whether or not we follow that policy," said Larranaga.

Skinn's teammates sucked it up and beat Michigan State without their best player, then they knocked off the defending national champions, North Carolina, another one of college basketball's bluebloods. Skinn was back in uniform for that game but he didn't start.

"I think something we all learn is that when you make a mistake, you have to pay the price," said Larranaga. "I think it's something that now, looking back, was the best thing in the world for him and for us."

The Patriots are here at the Final Four because they are a very good team, certainly deserving and certainly capable. They are where they are not just because they are a good team, though. They have reached this crossroads on their rather magical journey because their coach understands that it's not just good enough to be a winner in basketball, you have to be a winner in life, too.

"What we stand for is far greater than whether we win or lose on a basketball floor," he said. "We are all educators. Our responsibility is to teach these youngsters, whether they're basketball players or any other student-athlete who we're responsible for working with, to set the right example.

"Is winning important? Yes, we all strive to win but more importantly is we strive for excellence in all areas. We want to exceed in the classroom. We want to exceed in behavior off the court. We want to see our students graduate."

The more Larranaga talked, the easier it is to understand why the Patriots are where they are. They've been labeled Cinderella because they have done what seemed so impossible just three weeks ago. They've been labeled no-names by so-called experts that measure greatness by the number of McDonald's All-Americans adorning the roster.

Larranaga probably wouldn't say no to a McDonald's All-American that wanted to join his band of basketball gypsies in Fairfax. Probably wouldn't. But he might. He would definitely say no if that McDonald's All-American didn't measure up on his character scale that never slides. He doesn't measure the success of his recruiting classes by the number of stars after the name but by character and willingness to learn.

"One question I'm always asked after the recruiting period is what kind of recruiting year do you think you've had?" Larranaga said. "And my answer is always the same. Ask me in 10 years when I see what they're doing with their lives."

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