What Davidson and Stephen Curry accomplished in this year's NCAA Basketball tournament was amazing... but how does it stack up to the 2006 George Mason team that went to the final four?
There are many different methods of comparison, and I will only look into some of the main ones in this article. For starters, lets compare over-all record.
Davidson - 29-7 George Mason - 27-8
This is a very slight advantage to Davidson. Now I compare their successes prior to the NCAA tournament.
RPI - rating and rank:
Davidson - .5875, #35 George Mason - .5984, #26
This is a clear advantage to George Mason, which is surprising. Many people thought George Mason would not even make the 2006 NCAA tournament (they lost in their conference tournament), while Davidson was a lock to make the 2008 tournament. However, it is George Mason who had the higher RPI rating.
Davidson - 20-0 in the Southern Conference (RPI #21)
George Mason - 15-3 in the Colonial Athletic Association (RPI #10)
There is no clear advantage here. Davidson went undefeated, but they did so in an easy conference. George Mason won a very difficult conference. The CAA had another team qualify for the tournament that year (UNC-Wilmington) and two other teams on the bubble (Hofstra and Old Dominion). It's only fair to give Davidson a slight edge here, but it's impossible to know how their success would have changed if they played in a more competitive conference.
Strength of Schedule Rank:
Davidson - #129 overall, #4 non-conference
George Mason - #89 overall, #32 non-conference
It is easy to see how much playing in the Southern Conference hurt Davidson's strength of schedule. Their non-conference schedule was one of the toughest in the country, but their overall schedule strength was still weak. George Mason had a relatively difficult over-all strength of schedule, even though they played in a non-major conference. The edge has to go to George Mason, although Davidson certainly gets an "A" for effort by scheduling such difficult teams.
Now I look at how these teams actually fared in the tournament.
1st Round: Gonzaga (7) - W 82-76
2nd Round: Georgetown (2) - W 74-70
3rd Round: Wisconsin (3) - W 73-56
Elite Eight: Kansas (1) - L 57-59
George Mason -
1st Round: Michigan State (6) - W 75-65
2nd Round: North Carolina (3) - W 65-60
3rd Round: Wichita State (7) - W 63-55
Elite Eight: Connecticut (1) - W 86-84 (OT)
Final Four: Florida (3) - L 58-73
There are actually several striking similarities in the runs of Davidson and George Mason, but also some key differences. They both ultimately lost to the eventual champions. Davidson gave eventual-champion Kansas a much closer game than George Mason gave to eventual-champion Florida. Mason was, however, Florida's third closest game of the tournament. Davidson was Kansas' second closest game, behind their overtime championship thriller against Memphis.
They both won their games in somewhat similar fashions; by using very strong second halves. Davidson outscored Gonzaga 46-35 in the second half, outscored Georgetown 47-32 in the second half, and outscored Wisconsin 37-20 in the second half. George Mason outscored Michigan State 42-35 in the second half, outscored UNC 45-33 in the second half, and outscored UConn 40-31 in the second half.
However, there is one enormous difference in the two teams... George Mason won one more game. And not just any game, they beat #1 seed and tournament-favorite UConn to qualify for the final four. They were the first mid-major team since UPenn and Indiana State in 1979 to make the final four. They also tied LSU's record, set in 1986, for highest seed to play in the final four.
While Davidson lost an extremely close game against Kansas with a shot to win the game at the buzzer, Mason recovered from squandering a lead at the end of the second half to beat UConn in overtime. Davidson likely would have had a better final four performance than Mason had (they lost a close game to UNC, who would have been their opponent, earlier in the season). But it was George Mason who rose to the occasion to defeat a #1 seed in the elite eight, while Davidson fell just short.
Another big difference, in my opinion, is that many fans and analysts expected a strong run from Davidson in the 2008 tournament. I'm not sure that anyone expected them to beat the quality of teams that they beat in the way that they did, but there were very few people that expected any tournament wins out of George Mason in 2006. Many thought they didn't even deserve to be in the tournament.
All in all, both teams were extremely well-talented and thrilled the entire country with their success. The team of better strength is debatable, and I would even say the edge might go to Davidson. The media certainly portrayed Davidson as the stronger team prior to the tournament, but as we saw with RPI rankings there was also indication that George Mason was better.
But in the end, George Mason's run went deeper into the tournament and was more unexpected, so the title of better underdog has to go undebatably to George Mason.