There are few basketball outcomes more unimaginable than Chaminade beating Virginia in Honolulu 24 years ago. Chaminade, back then, was an NAIA school. That's further away from big-time college sports than Division III.
Chaminade was so small back then it shared a campus with a high school. Yet, one December night in 1982, the Silverswords beat Virginia of the mighty ACC, beat the undefeated and top-ranked Cavaliers, beat three-time player of the year Ralph Sampson.
I was there, sitting in Blaisdell Arena, the night that Chaminade beat Virginia.
So was Jim Larranaga.
He was on the wrong side of history that night, an assistant coach for Virginia, stunned like everybody in the gym in what is widely believed to be the greatest upset in college basketball history.
Yesterday, coaching another school in the Commonwealth of Virginia, Larranaga was on the right side of history. Even though George Mason had defeated Michigan State and North Carolina, half of last year's Final Four, earlier in this tournament, yesterday's victory over top-seeded Connecticut for a spot in the Final Four is no less than a hush-your-mouth stunner.
For me, nothing will ever be as big an upset as Chaminade beating Virginia. A Division I power wouldn't even schedule an NAIA school anymore.
It was the basketball equivalent of a super flyweight Golden Gloves champ knocking out Muhammad Ali in his prime.
But there was so much more at stake here yesterday, which makes George Mason beating Connecticut the college basketball equivalent of Ali beating Sonny Liston, which changed the fight game as we came to know it. In eight days, we could look back and see that George Mason was good enough to win a national championship. But yesterday, the Patriots shocked the world.
Maybe -- okay, probably -- this is the biggest upset in NCAA tournament history.
At this moment, six days before the Final Four begins, George Mason is the face of the NCAA tournament, an honorable and easy-to-root-for symbol of mid-major basketball programs everywhere. A tournament that began two weeks ago amidst a contentious debate over the worthiness of mid-majors, specifically George Mason, is now down to four teams, none of them No. 1 seeds.
Duke, out. Memphis, out. Villanova, out. Connecticut, out.
Not since 1979, when Penn of the Ivy League reached the Final Four, has the final weekend of college basketball had such a Cinderella.
While the George Mason players knew virtually everything about Connecticut's players and head coach, Jim Calhoun, few Connecticut players knew George Mason's coach or could name any of the Patriots' starters.
"Before the game," senior guard Lamar Butler said afterward, "we saw an overconfident team. They just looked so arrogant. We all noticed it. They looked at the name on the jersey. . . . Man, the game hasn't even been played yet, how do you assume you're going to win?"
If they were arrogant before the game, they weren't afterward. Rashad Anderson, Connecticut's big-time shooter, said his team wasn't arrogant.
They've got television sets in their hotel rooms. They watched George Mason beat Michigan State and North Carolina.
"Cinderella? No, no, no," Anderson said. "They're under-recruited and probably underappreciated. But look what they did. One team, okay. But Michigan State and North Carolina? No way, Cinderella."
Inside the George Mason locker room, players wrestled with putting the day in some kind of perspective. Reserve guard Gabe Norwood said: "I really don't think it was a huge upset, not after Michigan State and North Carolina. You don't get lucky three games in a row. But we have embraced the Cinderella theme. There was no pressure on us at all. Two weeks ago, we just hoped we were getting in."
Butler hates the Cinderella theme and said: "There's no such thing as mid-major anymore. Throw that label away."
Of all the people in the building, including Larranaga, Calhoun probably had a better handle than anybody on what George Mason has accomplished in getting to the Final Four. Calhoun, in defeat, was almost proud of George Mason, mostly because Calhoun coached at Northeastern for 14 years, which coincidentally is a Colonial Athletic Association colleague of George Mason.
"I can only imagine, and probably better than most, the feeling they must have on that campus and in that locker room," Calhoun said. "Those kids, many of whom were passed over by the Big East schools and others . . . I tip my hat to their conviction, to staying with what they have, to the incredible coaching job that [Larranaga] did. I feel a great deal of inner joy, honestly, about what they must be going through right now, something they probably never could have imagined. We have imagined it, and we've done it. But they could never have imagined that."
Calhoun contrasted the teams that come in with so many heavy expectations with the teams that come in freewheeling and playing with what he called "a sense of looseness. . . . I don't think George Mason ever thought about the Final Four."
In all these conversations, players and coaches from both teams ultimately came to the conclusion that George Mason is a pretty damn good basketball team, underrated in terms of the athleticism and skill the Patriots players have. Though more of Connecticut's players will perform in the NBA, George Mason indeed can physically do things to take advantage of Connecticut. The penetration of Butler and Tony Skinn set up Mason's three-point shooting, which, when successful, eliminated Connecticut's ability to double-team Jai Lewis and Will Thomas down low. And goodness, did Thomas and Lewis (39 points and 19 rebounds) hammer the Huskies' more celebrated big men, Josh Boone and Hilton Armstrong (14 points and nine rebounds).
"We got beat in the post, and we got beat good in the post," Calhoun said.
The details of the game will fade over time, except perhaps Denham Brown's shot bouncing three times on the left side of the rim before falling to force overtime (at which point everybody in the building not sitting on the George Mason bench thought Connecticut would win). But the outcome, the feeling in the arena, the realization that George Mason -- for cryin' out loud -- had reached the Final Four is everlasting.
To think Larranaga had walked around earlier in the day humming the theme from "Mission: Impossible." To think, in an attempt to keep his players laughing and loose, he said to them: "Do you know what CAA stands for? It stands for Connecticut Assassins Association . . . should you choose to accept this assignment."
Even so, he never used the word "upset" with his players, Larranaga said.
"Two good teams on the floor," is what he said after every victory. "All season long we believed we were a very good team. I had to be sure of how good our players knew we were."