Published March 19, 2011
CLEVELAND – The magical March run, the one that changed everything for George Mason, the one that made every mid-major program and player puff their chests with pride and forever tilted college basketball's axis, just celebrated its fifth anniversary.
Given little chance, the underdog Patriots of the Colonial Athletic Association knocked off three elite schools on their way to the Final Four.
Jared Sullinger, then a chubby eighth grader with hoop dreams of his own, was in the stands at Dayton Arena when George Mason dropped superpower North Carolina to its knees.
"That kind of introduced everybody to them," Ohio State's freshman center said Saturday. "They were the Cinderella that year."
Look who's back at the ball?
George Mason, a name that instantly instills fear in the hearts and minds of any favorite, can enhance its well-deserved reputation as a giant slayer on Sunday when it meets another behemoth — overall No. 1 seed Ohio State — in the third round of the NCAA tournament.
Once again, the odds are stacked high against the Patriots.
They're taking on The Ohio State University.
"Lots of people disrespect us, say we're going to lose and stuff" said George Mason guard Andre Cornelius. "I don't care about being the underdog. I just want to make a statement. I just want to come out there and beat them and shut everybody up."
The eighth-seeded Patriots (27-6), who have won 17 of 18, are trying to retrace the unplanned trip made by George Mason's 2006 team, which beat Michigan State, North Carolina and second-seeded Connecticut before eventually losing to Florida in the national semifinals at Indianapolis.
While respecting the players who wore George Mason's gold and green before them, this year's team intends to make history of its own.
Guard Luke Hancock, whose 3-pointer with 21 seconds left rallied the Patriots to a 61-57 second-round win over Villanova on Friday, said he and his teammates have been hammered nonstop with questions about the unexpected journey that put the Fairfax, Va., school on the map.
"Anything we do, we're compared," he said. "But we're trying to make our own name, trying to do our own thing. We'd like people to be talking about us instead of the '06 team."
That point was reinforced at Friday's postgame news conference, when forward Mike Morrison held up one of the T-shirts handed out to the team last week.
On the back it says: "We ARE this year's George Mason."
"Everybody compares us to the '06 team and says, 'Who's going to this year's George Mason?" Morrison said. "We're George Mason. Every year we're this year's George Mason, no matter what. We believe in our team. There's never been a game we didn't feel we could win."
It's going to take more than a motivating slogan to upset the Buckeyes (33-2), who showed nary a blemish in a 75-46 destruction of No. 16 seed Texas-San Antonio. Fueled by thousands of its title-thirsty fans, Ohio State set a tournament record with 26 assists, a stat that underscores the unselfish nature of a well-balanced team that carries itself like a champion.
The Buckeyes are good, and they know it.
There's a tinge of arrogance about them, but it's not like they think they're invincible.
"Not at all," said fifth-year senior guard David Lighty, the team's unquestioned leader. "I mean, we've lost two games. So we're beatable. I mean, it's possible."
Ohio State's only two losses were at Wisconsin and Purdue, and they occurred mainly because of exceptional shooting performances. Badgers guard Jordan Taylor scored 21 in the second half to rally Wisconsin, and Boilermakers guard E'Twaun Moore made a career-high seven 3-pointers and scored 38 in Purdue's win on Feb. 20.
George Mason doesn't appear to have anyone capable of dominating like that, and coach Jim Larranaga knows his team must do better than shoot 40 percent like it did against Villanova.
"They're going to score some points," Larranaga said of the Buckeyes, who average 77. "We've got to figure out a way to match them in that category. Our defense needs to be at its very best on first shots. We've got to limit second shots. But the biggest thing is, we really gotta encourage our guys to understand that we're going to have to put the ball in the basket.
"We're going to have to make 2s and 3s and shoot the ball the way we have all season long."
If they do, George Mason can repeat history.
The benefits of the '06 journey to Indy were immediate for George Mason. It was a recruiting tool that raised its national profile and helped Larranaga land players on this year's roster, including freshman Vertrail Vaughns from Texas.
"When I called him the first time, I was amazed how much he knew about us," Larranaga said. "I asked him how he knew that much, and he said, 'I see you play on TV all the time.' I said, In Dallas? And he said, 'Yeah.'"
When the tournament pairings were announced last week, Larranaga immediately noted several similarities between Mason's start in 2006 and this year — both began in Ohio.
Five years ago, the Patriots opened in Dayton, where the Buckeyes were also placed. In '06, George Mason played its first-round game against Michigan State, a team it had narrowly lost to the previous season. Last year, the Patriots lost to Villanova by a point in Puerto Rico, and they've already avenged that setback.
On Sunday, there's a chance for George Mason to make magic happen.
"I'm a great believer in routines and things repeating themselves," Larranaga said. "I continually remind the players of those things, because I think it makes them feel good."