George Mason's Basketball Team a Hit in the UAE

There's a vague notion on this tiny satellite campus of George Mason University that basketball is played by bouncing a ball and tossing it toward a hoop. It's also starting to sink in that classmates on the other side of the world have done something remarkable.

"Go, Mason, go!" yells 19-year-old Mohamed Eltigani, who was born in Sudan.

"Kun fi al-qimma!" campus receptionist Khawla Yousef screams in Arabic, which means "Reach the top!"

Welcome to the real Mideast Regional.

Come Saturday — when George Mason resumes its improbable ride and meets Florida in the Final Four in Indianapolis — students and faculty on this campus will hopefully by then have found some way to watch the game.

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And there better not be any Gators fans passing through this remote mountain town, where large patches of rocks abound and wild donkeys and camels roam.

The farfetched success of the Patriots caught many people by surprise, none more than those on George Mason's UAE campus, where basketball is about as popular as cricket is in America. The university, too, is even less of a household name in these parts than in the States, and it doesn't officially open its doors until September.

"Please win for us to make us popular," said Ahmed Khalid, a 20-year-old Palestinian who grew up in Ras Al Khaimah.

George Mason coach Jim Larranaga, who has likened his Superman-slaying team to Kryptonite, was intrigued to hear the UAE students were following the Patriots.

"You think when they're reading it, they're going to ask someone what Kryptonite is?" Larranaga said from the school's Virginia campus Wednesday. "Can you explain what Kryptonite is in Arabic?"

The campus is 60 miles from Dubai and has just 31 students — many from Iraq, Syria and Iran — who study English in hopes of being admitted as freshmen in the fall. Their sports activities consist of pingpong over lunch and soccer games that start when the blazing sun dips below the jagged mountains along the nearby border with Oman.

"We are trying to generate some interest," said Shaukat Mirza, the campus' executive director, giving a tour of a campus garden where iridescent green birds flitted among desert plants. "They are playing not exactly basketball, but football. I mean soccer."

Mirza said he was blindsided by the team's snowballing success, perhaps because he has focused on the grand opening of the campus, which sits on a stony plain where goats graze among acacia trees. "Until you called me I was not aware of it," he told The Associated Press.

Students' knowledge of the game was slightly better. Eltigani was asked to name a basketball player. "Shaquille O'Neal!" the goateed student said with a grin. Any others? "There are some but I can't think of them," he said.

The students were stumped when asked which team George Mason beat last week.

"Chicago?" asked one.

"No, it was Michigan," Eltigani said with little conviction.

Informed it was Connecticut, Eltigani winced.

The Patriots' opponent Saturday?

"I think they're playing Minnesota," said Khalid, who professed the most knowledge of the game, saying he played in high school..

Scott South, who teaches English at the school, figures the victory over Connecticut will serve another purpose as well.

"I printed out articles just outside Ras Al Khaimah. For now, the big question is this: Will it generate any star basketball players?

The Ras Al Khaimah campus has a fine basketball court, with a green resin composite floor. But the court has been converted into an auditorium, with stuffed chairs to the half-court line and framed portraits of sheiks on the wall instead of a scoreboard.

"We'll start a team here now. It has been an inspiration for us," declares campus librarian Amuthan Arasan.

"We're proud to say we're in the best of four," he said, then adding, after a hint, "er, Final Four."