Just months ago, I found myself questioning whether or not George Mason was good enough to go to the NCAA tournament. Heading into the CAA tournament, the Patriots were playing very unsteady basketball down the stretch. In the final week of the season George Mason lost by 11 points to a less than stellar Northeastern squad. Then came conference tournament time. After a first round bye, the Patriots got a rematch against Northeastern. In their opening game of the tournament, George Mason returned to what they did best by playing great defensive basketball in a 63-52 win over the Huskies. While this was a great win, the semi final worried me. The Patriots were set to face off against the UNC Wilmington Seahawks. In their earlier meetings, the Seahawks came away with two and three point victories over the Patriots. However, the Patriots had one goal in mind and that was making it to the NCAA Tournament. The Patriots never trailed as they defensively dominated the Seahawks 53-41. From there, it was onto the CAA Title game where Mason would have to play the streaking William and Mary Tribe. William and Mary emerged as a very aggressive fifth seed taking down regular season CAA champion VCU in the semi final. The Tribe kept it close for the first half as the Patriots led 27-26 at intermission. However Mason’s defense proved to be too much as they cruised to a 68-59 victory and the CAA Championship title. The Patriots advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since their magical final four run in 2006. They enter as a 12th seed and will play 5th seeded Notre Dame in the first round.
The Irish are the clear favorites with good reason. They enter the tournament as a Big East at large with a record of 24-7. Notre Dame also enters the tournament averaging a Big East best 80.6 points per game. Leading the way for the Irish is Big East Player of the Year, Luke Harangody. Standing at 6’8 and 251 lbs, Harangody is considered to be one of the most physical players in the league. During the regular season, he averaged a team leading 20.8 points per game and 10.2 rebounds a game.
While George Mason may not have a single player that matches up with Harongody, but they have two players who could make some noise for the Patriots. Will Thomas and Folarin Campbell are the two remaining starters from the 2006 Final Four squad. Both have been consistent leaders for the Patriots offensively throughout the season averaging a combined 31.7 points per game. The Patriots will also counter the Big East’s best offense with the CAA’s best defense. The Patriots like to slow the game down and that could be just what they need to throw off the inconsistent outside shooting of the Irish. The Patriots are not to be underestimated as they ran the table as the underdog just two years ago. While they come into the tournament as a much different team than two years ago, their attitude is the same. Play loose and have fun. Notre Dame may be so focused on getting to the next round that they could easily overlook a hot team like George Mason.
If the Patriots do get past Notre Dame, they will face a match-up against the winner of the #4 Washington State vs. # 13 Winthrop game. As the tournament goes on the games traditionally only get harder. Everyone is looking to get as far in the tournament as they can. Winthrop comes off a Big South Tournament Championship. Year after year, Winthrop has been known for pulling huge upsets against solid teams in the first round. In my mind, they are going to slip past Washington State and advance to the second round. Their tournament experience against great teams may work in their favor. However, you can’t over look Washington State either. Washington State finished as the third best team in the Pac-10. They come into the tournament with an overall record of 24-8. Keep in mind, the Pac-10 put a league leading seven teams into the tournament. So, Washington State has already faced off against some of the best teams in the country. The Cougars finished with an 11-7 record in conference play. There is no question that the Patriots will have their work cut out for them in the second round regardless of their opponent. The only thing on George Mason’s mind right now is having fun and playing quality basketball against quality opponents.