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Upsets show changing face of basketball

WP: Differences between haves, have-nots has decreased
George Mason head coach Jim Larranaga points to his team's fans after the Patriots beat North Carolina on Sunday.David Kohl / AP

As the Georgetown Hoyas ran to their locker room with a 13-point halftime lead, John Thompson III caught a glimpse of George Mason Coach Jim Larranaga. And as consumed as Thompson was with his team's game against favored Ohio State in a Buckeyes-crazed University of Dayton Arena, he knew what had transpired an hour earlier. Thompson III knew his neighbors in Fairfax had just knocked off North Carolina in a game that shook the NCAA tournament.

Not even breaking stride, Thompson III stepped to his right and shared a firm congratulatory handshake and smile with Larranaga. The George Mason coach, while conducting interviews, would occasionally contort his body to look out of a tunnel at the scoreboard. And when the Hoyas filed into the dressing room for intermission, Larranaga encouraged them to "keep it up . . . 20 more minutes!"

Whatever Washington area college basketball rivalries exist took a break here Sunday in the NCAA tournament. Georgetown and George Mason fans sat essentially side by side in the arena and enjoyed as fulfilling an afternoon as was possible . . . so far.

George Mason, the school with no college basketball pedigree but clearly on its way up, beat North Carolina, giving the Colonial Athletic Association a stunning victory over the Atlantic Coast Conference. And Georgetown, the school with plenty of pedigree and on its way back, essentially won a road game, beating second-seeded Ohio State. And both, Georgetown and George Mason, scored big upsets, at least according to the seedings.

Mason held North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough, the best freshman in the nation, to two points in the second half and 10 overall. And while Ohio State's left-tackle of a power forward, senior Terence Dials, scored 19 points, he was still outplayed by Georgetown's dramatically improving sophomore center, 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert.

The true beauty in the madness of March isn't just the upsets; it's the discovery of new talent, of kids we didn't much know when the season began in November. And at the top of that list is Hibbert, who makes even cynical coaches wonder every day how a kid could improve this much from game to game. Georgetown, right now, is a threat to beat anybody. And just suppose, for a second, the Hoyas beat Florida and Villanova beats Boston College on Friday. Sorry for hyperventilating, but that would set up Georgetown vs. Villanova for the chance to go to the Final Four, which would lead CBS executives to faint.

Anyway, Georgetown is that good now, and apparently so is George Mason.

Long after midnight Friday, waiting for some pizzas to be delivered to a hotel lobby, Big John Thompson more or less predicted what George Mason would do Sunday. He told a group of us how much he liked the Patriots' aggression, how well they played together, how mentally tough and well-coached George Mason was. People peeked at their brackets and presumed North Carolina would beat Mason, but Thompson kept warning us. "Boys, you better listen to the old coach," he said.

Of course, this whole tournament has been one big warning. Maybe it has even been a peek at the future of college basketball. Not only are "mid-majors" Bradley, Wichita State, George Mason and Gonzaga in the Sweet 16, but Wisconsin-Milwaukee won a game, as did Northwestern State and Bucknell. And Albany, Winthrop and Murray State scared the daylights out of No. 1 seed Connecticut, No. 2 seed Tennessee and No. 3 seed North Carolina in the very first round.

George Mason — brace yourselves — in one weekend eliminated half of last year's Final Four.

So the question needed to be asked of Larranaga: Did he consider George Mason's victory over North Carolina really an upset?

"I read something in the paper today," Larranaga said. "I'm not sure who said it, but they said, 'In this tournament, there are no upsets. There are just good teams, playing hard, playing well.' I would like to think that's true because the college game has changed dramatically over the years. Quite frankly, there is a lot of parity in the country right now. I think the [tournament selection] committee showed its wisdom and knowledge about the college game. I think the experience that Jim Nantz and Billy Packer has works against them. They're brilliant guys, and I'm a big fan of both of them. But they remember all those great athletes and teams and future pros [that played in the ACC and Big Ten and Pacific-10].

"They think it's the same. It's not. Ask them how many times they saw George Mason play this year? Definitely not in person. They probably didn't watch any video on us, so they had no idea going into Selection Sunday what George Mason is all about."

Roy Williams said, "I remember a time when you were a 1, 2 or 3 seed, you could win the first couple of rounds without playing particularly well."

Larranaga added that teams that simply buy what's commonly known as guaranteed home games against lesser schools and then go .500 in their conference schedule haven't done enough to get ready for March — not anymore.

Yes, Larranaga's right. Packer admitted publicly he hadn't seen the Missouri Valley Conference play, which is why he didn't think the MVC deserved as many as four at-large bids. Larranaga, don't forget, was an assistant coach at Virginia. He remembers when each ACC team "had three, four future pros. But the college game has changed."

North Carolina, Duke, Ohio State, Syracuse, Connecticut — all the top 20 programs — likely have two future NBA players. But George Mason might have one, Davidson might have one, Murray State might have one.

And they're well-coached in many instances. They're less likely to be thinking about turning professional early because they're late bloomers who don't arrive on campus believing they're dripping with talent. George Mason may or may not have future pros, but with Will Thomas, Jai Lewis, Gabe Norwood, Lamar Butler, Folarin Campbell, Tony Skinn and Sammy Hernandez, they've got players who grew up competing with the likes of Hansbrough and Reyshawn Terry in AAU ball and in dozens of high school all-star games across the country. There's a familiarity now that didn't exist 25 years ago.

The upstarts have come to believe, increasingly, there simply isn't that much difference between them and the blue bloods.

And by beating Michigan State and North Carolina, maybe they've shown us new possibilities for March. Yes, only one-quarter of the teams remaining are mid-majors, which means three-quarters come from the super powers. But the super powers had better not look back; they'll find something, sure enough, is gaining on them.