As March wound down without its usual flurry of March Madness moments, NBC Sports Washington took a look back at some smaller DMV schools who made a big impact during their most recent NCAA Tournament appearances.
When one thinks of George Mason basketball, instantly they're called back to the historic Final Four team in 2006. That team's legacy hasn’t outgrown that legendary performance when the Patriots stunned everyone with one of the great Cinderella runs in tournament history.
But the 2010-11 George Mason squad had something to prove, too. Those Patriots wanted to write their own history. Hard to do when the mark was an unprecedented Final Four appearance. In 2011 they moved the Final Four to the side and gave pundits another story to tell, adding another giant of the sport to their list of downed foes.
Five years removed from the original Cinderella story, it was an entirely new team. New players, new assistant coaches and a new era of Mason basketball. But, it was recent enough to still have extra motivation for those on the roster.
“We were kind of in those shadows of ‘Alright we don’t want to be the guys that come to college and then don’t get to the tournament,'’” former Patriots forward Mike Morrison told NBC Sports Washington. “We still communicate with [the Final Four] guys as if we’re on the same team. We know them personally. We play videogames online with each other from across the world and group chats and all that stuff. So, we were pretty tight.”
During that 2010-11 season, the Patriots, led still by coach Jim Larranaga, set records that even the Final Four team never did. A program-best 16-game winning streak propelled the team to an at-large bid. As a rehe CAA regular-season title for the second time ever. They received a higher seed, in fact - the best in the league’s history by being the No. 8 seed. George Mason sult, they won twas the first CAA team to ever be the home seed in an NCAA Tournament game.
And unlike Selection Sunday in 2006, there was no doubt they would hear their name called. A 26-6 (16-2) record in a three-bid CAA had them prepared to continue playing. It was a matter of who, when and where, not if.
Mason’s first opponent was Villanova, a team that the Patriots had just lost to by a point a year prior in non-conference play, a team Mason believed it could beat.
“We weren’t just happy by the seeding. We were very excited to get Villanova," Morrison said. "The year before we played them in Puerto Rico and we really felt like we should have beat them and we didn’t play our best game. There was a lot of excitement behind our matchup for sure.”
Mason’s roster was full of characters. The quiet, lead-by-example Cam Long was one of two seniors in the rotation. With him were the loud and boisterous juniors Ryan Pearson and Morrison in the frontcourt. At the point was sophomore guard Luke Hancock. They didn’t back down from a challenge. Mason was aggressive, loud, talked smack and was not afraid to tell teams they were better than them. They were battle-tested.
“We played tough games that year,” then-assistant coach Mike Huger told NBC Sports Washington. “We were in battles throughout, even in the 16-game winning streak. The CAA was very good and very competitive with us and VCU and just battling each other throughout. Old Dominion was very good as well.”
The first-round matchup played out exactly how an No. 8-9 game should. Back-and-forth, each team trading blows, answering the bell when it looked like the other had them on the ropes.
An 8-0 spark in the final moments gave Mason brief control of the game. Up until that point, Villanova had led for most of the contest and Mason would not go away. A foul on a Corey Fisher 3-point attempt gave Villanova the lead right back with the shot clock turned off. Mason was down one, with plenty of time left for multiple possessions and then Hancock stepped back for a three.
“Luke shot it and that wasn’t the plan,” Morrision said jokingly. “Luke just did what he does.”
“Well, first it was more like ‘What are you doing?!’ He had the lane to drive to the basket and then he stops on a dime and takes a step-back three… and it was like holy smokes,” Huger said. “The shot was just such a shock. I think Villanova was in shock that everything happened the way it did. I think that kind of froze them a little bit and they weren’t able to make a play after that.”
The Patriots withstood the final 20 seconds to beat Villanova 61-57. Another blue blood to go down, joining the list of Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and Connecticut from 2006. Could Patriots, with a crop of new faces, do it again?
The three by Hancock extended Mason’s tournament but did not extend his own. Before they were set to play No. 1 seed Ohio State, Hancock came down with food poisoning. The “glue” of the team was gone and quickly shut down the wild concept that this could be another Cinderella team.
"That changed the dynamic of the team,” Huger said. “We didn’t understand how much we would miss Luke going into that Ohio State game until it really hit us and now it’s like, ‘Oh, he’s not here.’”
The David Lighty and Jared Sullinger-led Buckeyes throttled the Patriots 98-66 in the second round. A magical run wasn’t allowed to end organically.
As fortune would have it, that was the end of the road for a group that had so much potential. With four starters returning, running it back and perhaps having an even better season was definitely in the cards.
But Larranaga left at season’s end to coach the Miami Hurricanes. His assistants would follow. Hancock, who had just come off his ‘One Shining Moment’ shot, transferred to Louisville, where more NCAA Tournaments would follow.
The 'what ifs' grow bigger as time has gone on, showing how quickly life can change for mid-major programs. The Patriots haven’t made the tournament since.
“We thought we could really do something special with that group coming back, but everything changed,” Huger said. “Who knows what would have happened if we would have stayed and had another crack at it the following year with that group back. So that’s the thing that you always wonder.”
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