On Sunday afternoon, Drexel Coach Bruiser Flint almost tackled his television after Connecticut miraculously extended its region final against George Mason into overtime. At that very moment 1,500 miles away, Missouri State Coach Barry Hinson and his wife screamed at the television in the kitchen of their home.
Coaches at mid-level programs around the country waited two decades for the type of outcome that occurred Sunday at Verizon Center, where the Patriots became the first true mid-major team to advance to the Final Four since the NCAA tournament field expanded to 64 teams in 1985. Drake Coach Tom Davis likened the feat almost to man breaking the four-minute mile barrier more than a half century ago.
"Every mid-major coach in the country I know was pulling for them," Hinson said yesterday. "There are very few coaches in the power conferences that can relate to what just happened, but there is a ton of coaches out there in the mid-major and low-major leagues that have an appreciation for what George Mason accomplished. I think they will be America's team in the Final Four."
George Mason became only the eighth team since the tournament field expanded in 1985 to reach the Final Four from a conference outside the traditional six power leagues. But almost all of those programs had players of national acclaim who starred in college and later in the NBA.
The Patriots, however, reached the Final Four even though they lack a player of national renown and had never won an NCAA tournament game before this season. That, coaches say, speaks to the diminishing gap between the power conference schools and the mid-level programs.
In the past 15 years, the reduction of scholarships from 15 to 13 has enabled smaller programs to sign players who otherwise would have played in bigger conferences. And the increasing number of players who leave school early for the NBA draft also has leveled the playing field.
Coaches point out that the nation's best college players this season were Duke senior J.J. Redick and Gonzaga junior Adam Morrison. But had every player remained in school, the best two this season would have been senior Carmelo Anthony and junior LeBron James, two college-age players without peer who would have significantly bolstered the rosters of marquee programs. In fact, Charlie Villanueva, who passed up what would have been his junior year at UConn, scored 48 points for the NBA's Toronto Raptors the night his former school lost to George Mason.
Coaches at bigger programs now deal with personnel turnover more than ever. At North Carolina, Coach Roy Williams was forced to replace his top seven scorers from last year's national title team. The Tar Heels lost to a more experienced George Mason team in the second round this year.
"You can't sustain like that, with your best players or two best players leaving every year," Flint said. "What you're seeing is that the larger conferences with the better teams may not have the depth they had in the past. Although they might have a talent, they might be young."
Conversely, the Missouri Valley Conference, which had a conference-record four teams make the tournament, will grow more experienced. Hinson said that the 10-team league will return 37 of 50 starters next season.
"We thought a mid-major team could reach the Final Four" the past few years, said Western Michigan Coach Steve Hawkins, a voter in the top 25 mid-major poll on http://www.collegeinsider.com/ . "But we thought that mid-major team would be Gonzaga. I feel the climate has changed over the past five to seven years."
To reach the Final Four, it was believed that a mid-major school such as George Mason needed to avoid the nation's best teams in the four regional games. But three of the Patriots' opponents — UConn, North Carolina and Michigan State — won four of the past seven national championships.
"Even though they are not in the Missouri Valley, in one sense they are because we're all in the same boat," said Davis, whose Drake program competes in the Valley. "It does a lot for your players. They did it; it can be done. Like they were the first, like breaking the four-minute mile."
Coaches hope George Mason's tournament run results in more respect in the coming years from the NCAA selection committee. Some coaches from power conferences this season expressed disdain over the relatively high number of mid-level programs that made the 65-team field.
"It would be nice to be recognized on a level that is not considered second class," said Nevada Coach Mark Fox.
Hofstra Coach Tom Pecora believes George Mason's Final Four appearance could change the way the tournament is set up and perceived in the future. "I don't understand why you wouldn't want to make it more entertaining and reward mid-major teams that are having exceptional years and not reward major conference teams that are having mediocre years," he said.
Hinson added that the "NCAA has always talked about parity and that everyone gets a fair shot. Well, here we are. If any negative connotations come out of this whatsoever, those people would, in my words, be anti-American, because that's not what our country is based on."