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A victory for all midmajors

Only one thought sprinted through J.R. Blount's mind Sunday as he watched George Mason players jump on tables and cut down nets.
/ Source: Daily Herald.com

Only one thought sprinted through J.R. Blount's mind Sunday as he watched George Mason players jump on tables and cut down nets. "If they did it," mused the Loyola freshman guard, "we can do it, too."

The magnitude of George Mason's win over Connecticut couldn't be confined to the Verizon Center. As the Patriots celebrated their historic Final Four entrance, players and coaches from midmajor programs around the country began measuring their own feet for glass slippers.

After years of near misses, midmajors had their evidence, in the form of severed nylon.

"It gives you hope," said Northern Illinois coach Rob Judson. "It really lets your players see that the way the game is set up today anything is possible."

Northern Illinois has never won an NCAA Tournament game and last went in 1996. Loyola owns an NCAA championship (1963), but it hasn't appeared in or won a NCAA Tournament game since 1985.

As Loyola coach Jim Whitesell watched George Mason on Sunday, he let his imagination run.

"Every coach dreams that it could be us someday," Whitesell said. "You're seeing a little bit of college basketball change."

Of the local midmajor programs, Illinois-Chicago's profile might closest resemble George Mason's. Both are public, commuter schools with similar enrollments - roughly 26,000 for UIC; roughly 29,000 for George Mason.

The Flames have had recent success, reaching the NCAA Tournament three times since 1998. But, like George Mason before this season, UIC has never won a NCAA Tournament game.

"That's an easy comparison," UIC coach Jimmy Collins said. "When our kids get an opportunity to see teams like (George Mason) play and be successful, it tells them that they, too, can reach that goal."

Surprise, surprise?

As soon as the final horn sounded, George Mason's upset of top-seeded Connecticut was earmarked as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, in college basketball history. How many fans had heard of Jim Larranaga, Jai Lewis or even George Mason himself before last week?

But the Patriots' Final Four run didn't shock some hoops insiders.

"There is no 'wow' factor for me," said Horizon League commissioner Jon LeCrone, a member of the NCAA Tournament selection committee that chose George Mason as an at-large team March 12. "The whole Cinderella magic is created by the media. George Mason's an excellent, excellent basketball team."

"I'm only surprised that it's taken all of us who don't have the large programs this long to get to the Final Four. In the Horizon League, we're hugely disappointed if we don't at least get through a first-round game."

Midmajor conferences such as the Horizon, Mid-American, Missouri Valley and West Coast have accumulated their share of NCAA Tournament wins in recent years. But most Cinderella stories follow a similar pattern: eye-catching upsets the first weekend, gust of media attention the next week, loss to talent-stocked high seed in the Sweet Sixteen or the Elite Eight.

"The only difference is someone went a game further this year," former UCLA coach and ESPN college basketball analyst Steve Lavin said Monday night. "The (NCAA) Tournament brings a greater spotlight and attention to the upsets because everyone in the world has a bracket. But if you really go back and study it, none of this should really be a surprise.

"We've seen it coming. Kent State was knocking on the door. Gonzaga was knocking on the door. George Mason is the first breakthrough."

West Coast Conference commissioner Michael Gilleran witnessed Gonzaga's rise firsthand.

"George Mason maybe didn't have Gonzaga's panache and Adam Morrison to point to, but people in the industry knew they were a quality team," Gilleran said. "Heck, they may win it all."

The next step

George Mason has busted brackets and bruised egos, but whether it can break down barriers in recruiting, scheduling and exposure remains to be seen.

Collins said recruiting "got a little bit easier" after UIC reached the NCAA Tournament in 1998, 2002 and 2004. But others are more skeptical.

"I don't think it will change recruiting at all," Whitesell said. "I don't know if you can change the scope there. Maybe with a national title, it will."

A Final Four appearance has done wonders for George Mason's profile, but it could scare off future opponents.

"The cards are stacked against you when you've got to go to the big schools, and they won't come back and play you," Collins said.

Added Whitesell: "It's going to be tough for them to schedule. Will they be invited to the Maui (Invitational)? I don't know."

The regular-season realities will be tough to change, even for George Mason. But there will always be the NCAA Tournament, a time of equal opportunity.

"Everybody really does have a chance," Gilleran said.

So, can a midmajor be a fixture at the Final Four?

"It's still going to be the exception rather than the rule," Lavin said. "But there will be the occasional midmajor program that crashes the Final Four."

Judson called George Mason's run "lightning in a bottle," but he admitted that the Patriots have opened the door for others.

"One time doesn't necessarily raise the bar," Whitesell said. "Maybe it will be another 10 years before another midmajor gets in, but the point is, look where people are getting now.

"It's only good for college basketball. Every coach will be cheering for them in their hearts, whether they say so or not."