March 31, 2006

Underdog lovers rallying around George Mason

By Steve Ginsburg

INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) - Largely unknown just two weeks
ago, George Mason's lightly recruited but suddenly inspired
players have become the toast of an underdog-loving nation.

On the eve of the semi-finals of the NCAA men's college
basketball tournament, the Patriots held a public practice on
Friday at the RCA Dome before thousands of new-found fans.

"I'm having a blast," Patriots coach Jim Larranaga told
reporters after the workout. "My players are enjoying it.

"Just looking out there, the sea of lights and cameras, and
reporters covering us, it's been an absolutely fantastic magic
carpet ride."

George Mason (27-7), a commuter school from Fairfax. Va.,
is the first team outside of a major conference to make the
Final Four in a quarter of a century.

The other teams still fighting for the national title,
UCLA, LSU and Florida, are big-time basketball powers with
budgets five times the size of George Mason's.

And that is the Patriots' appeal.

George Mason apparel is a hot item in Indianapolis. It is
generally accepted that unless you have a rooting interest in
one of the other schools, you are pulling for George Mason.

"We're not like the big schools," said Patriots forward
Chris Fleming. "We've never had this before."

George Mason faces Florida (31-6) on Saturday night, while
LSU (27-8) battles UCLA (31-6). The winners will meet for the
national title on Monday night.


Florida sophomore forward Joakim Noah, the son of 1983
French Open champion Yannick Noah, knows who the crowd will be

"I think we're definitely going to be the villain," he
said. "Right now, it doesn't matter because it's do or die.

"We've been through a lot of experiences this year. People
have been against us. We've been in very hostile environments.

"Right now, it's all about getting a win."

George Mason, the regular season champions of the lightly
regarded Colonial Athletic Association, received an at-large
bid to the 64-team tournament.

They opened "March Madness" with a win over former champion
Michigan State before beating last year's champion North

A victory over Wichita State was followed by the big
stunner, a nationally televised overtime victory over
Connecticut, the squad many had seen as the best team in the

So now, George Mason, with players largely snubbed by the
larger schools, finds itself at the Final Four.

"I had to pinch myself after we beat UConn but now it's
reality," said guard Jordan Carter. "So there is no need for
pinching now.

"I envisioned us being in the NCAA Tournament but I didn't
envision us being in the Final Four. We're just hanging out
late and signing autographs. We're having fun with it."