King Kaufman’s Sports Daily

Best NCAA Tournament ever? Top seeds ousted one by one by one, and No. 11 George Mason goes to the Final Four.

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Toward the end of Florida’s 75-62 win over Villanova Sunday night, the last of the four regional finals, CBS announcers Jim Nantz and Billy Packer agreed that this NCAA Tournament was the best they’d ever seen.

What a load of hogwash.

Wait, sorry. Force of habit. It’s the best one I’ve ever seen too.

George Mason’s overtime shocker of top-seed Connecticut Sunday was the best yet, a crowning moment in a Tournament that still has a weekend to go. The Patriots, No. 11 in the Washington region, match LSU in 1986 as the lowest seed ever to reach the Final Four.

But it’s hardly a match. Those were the LSU Tigers of the SEC, who, coincidentally, also made this year’s Final Four. These are the George Mason Patriots of the CAA.

That stands for Colonial Athletic Association. I didn’t have to explain SEC, did I?

For the first time since 1980 and the second time ever, no No. 1 seed is in the Final Four. Three of them were knocked off in the regional finals, four games that all featured that greatest of NCAA Tournament sights, the team in the dark suits winning. It’s the first time that’s happened since 1980 also.

No. 2 UCLA beat No. 1 Memphis in the Oakland final Saturday, right after No. 4 LSU upset No. 2 Texas in Atlanta. After George Mason took care of UConn in Washington, No. 3 Florida routed No. 1 Villanova in Minneapolis.

From the competitive, nearly blowout-free first round through the overtime-flecked, thriller-laden, upset-studded next three, the 2006 Tournament has been a gem. The Tournament is such a great event because of what it provides from time to time: thrilling games, unthinkable upsets, indelible memories.

From time to time? This Tournament has had that stuff cranking nonstop.

And win or lose against Florida in the semifinal game in Indianapolis Saturday, George Mason will forever be the star of it.

The Patriots’ victory over UConn will go down in history as one of the greatest upsets of all time, but it really didn’t look like that as it was happening. Even though Connecticut was bigger and more athletic and threw an eight-man rotation at the five guys GMU coach Jim Larranaga stayed with for 200 of a possible 225 minutes, George Mason was in control for most of the game.

Without a man taller than 6-7, George Mason outrebounded UConn. That’s pretty much all you need to know.



Can George Mason keep it going, beat Joakim Noah and Florida Saturday and then beat the LSU-UCLA winner for the NCAA championship? Of course not. No chance. Just as the Patriots had no chance to go on a four-game Tournament winning streak over Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and Connecticut.

An Elite Eight thoughts to wrap up the Elite Eight round, not to mention the Sweet 16. And doesn’t Sweet 16 seem like a long time ago? I think I feel a song coming on …

What? No singing? Fine.

1. After two weeks of sober coverage, CBS opened things up a bit during this weekend’s broadcasts. I didn’t notice it so much in the Sweet 16 games Thursday and Friday, but the Elite Eight games Saturday and Sunday brought a definite return to two of my least favorite specialties of network TV, lousy-seat cam and under the basket during a fast break so you can’t see the outcome of the play cam.

There were also sideline reporters this weekend. Fewer games as the Tournament goes on, so guys like Mike Gminski, who were analysts in the early rounds, are relegated to sideline duty.

Sideline reports are almost never a good thing, but at least the ones this weekend tended toward the “I talked to Coach XYZ as he brought his team back on the floor and he told me they’ve got to get better spacing on offense” end of the spectrum, as opposed to the dreaded “I got a chance to sit down and talk to Power Forward this week and he told me he owes his ability to crash the boards to Fluffy, the dog his mom bought him when he was 7″ side.

2. I know you didn’t have George Mason winning the Washington regional final Sunday, and a lot of you did have UConn winning it. So, UConn fans aside, how many of you who had picked UConn were rooting for UConn?

I’ve done better with my bracket this year than I can ever remember doing. I even had a chance at winning a fairly large pool before my champ, Villanova, went down Sunday. And I had UConn going to the Final Four. But it didn’t occur to me for a moment to root for UConn, to put my bracket’s potential ahead of the fun of seeing one of the great upsets in Tournament history.

And it’s not just because I like to write about how lame my bracket is. I think we can all agree that schtick’s as played out as a Chris Berman home run call. I’d actually been looking forward to crowing a little bit about my triumphant bracket. But still, I was rooting for the underdog and got a genuine thrill when George Mason came through, my picks be damned.

Then again, I didn’t have money at stake.

How about you? Did you find yourself rooting for Goliath Sunday for any reason other than being an already-existing Goliath fan? And how did that make you feel? Would it really have made you happy to see those plucky Patriots from George Mason go down to defeat, just to preserve your bracket?

It’s OK. You can tell me.

3. I think George Mason would have beaten UConn in regulation but for a bizarre strategy it employs while shooting free throws to try to salt away a late lead. A lot of college teams do this, and I think it’s crazy every time one of them does it.

When shooting free throws late in a game George Mason is leading, the Patriots put no rebounders on the lane.

So GMU had everyone in the backcourt except Tony Skinn as Skinn shot a one-and-one with 5.5 seconds left in regulation and a two-point lead. If Skinn were to miss, UConn would get a free rebound, and sure enough that’s what happened.

Now, if there had been a couple of GMU players there, the Huskies would have had to fight for the rebound. They’d have probably gotten it, but then they’d have had two defenders to avoid before making a mad dash upcourt.

It might only have taken a second to avoid those two and make the outlet pass — but that second would have come in awfully handy for George Mason considering the game-tying shot left Denham Brown’s hand with 0.2 seconds left on the clock.

And that’s not to mention that if a George Mason player manages to get the rebound, the game’s all but over.

If the theory behind not having guys on the line is to set up a defense: Well, where was George Mason’s defense? Brown knifed to the baseline unmolested, though he did have to make a tough reverse layup. With competent defense, he wouldn’t have gotten that deep and wouldn’t have had time to score. If he has to make one move, the game’s over!

If the theory is to avoid fouls, I think the Patriots and all those teams that think the same way are giving up too much to avoid that possibility. And anyway, leading by two, you’d rather not foul and send an opponent to the line to shoot two, but at least that way you know you won’t be beaten by a three. A foul’s not the worst possible outcome.

The exact same strategy, with 6.1 seconds left, almost blew up in George Mason’s face again in overtime. But Brown missed a three-pointer for the win and the Patriots held on.

4. The George Mason-UConn game was not decided by officials, but for a terrible moment, it looked like it might be.

A palming call against UConn’s Marcus Williams with 1:02 left in regulation was so bad that when CBS showed a replay after a commercial, announcer Verne Lundquist mistakenly thought it must have been a different play.

“Here’s is the palm by Marcus Williams,” Lundquist said. “Well, that was the, uh, that was the basket by Williams. There was a turnover by Williams.” No, Verne, that was it. Williams hit a bank shot after the whistle had blown. That’s why it looked like a scoring play with no turnover.

Not only did Williams not palm the ball, he didn’t even come close. That’s why Lundquist thought the guys in the truck had played the wrong clip.

George Mason didn’t score on its next possession, Williams hit a layup, was fouled and converted the free throw to bring UConn within one, and the Huskies eventually forced overtime. So folks in Connecticut can talk about the Phantom Palm for a few days, but not for 50 years.

The refs might have decided the game, though, had Brown hit that three-pointer at the end of overtime to give UConn the win. With 46 seconds to go and George Mason up by four, Jai Lewis of George Mason stripped Williams of the ball near the corner of the key, but the officials incorrectly ruled it a tie-up and the possession arrow gave the ball back to Connecticut.

5. I want a copy of Gus Johnson’s call of the end of the UCLA-Gonzaga game on my iPod. Come to think of it, I want an iPod.

6. Watching Villanova play Boston College Friday, I thought, for the first time, that there was no way the Wildcats, the team I’d picked to win the Tournament, were going to win the Tournament. It didn’t make me feel any better about my pick to note that I also thought there was no way the Wildcats would beat Boston College, which they did.

For all the talk of guard play being supreme at Tournament time, you just can’t win six straight Tournament games relying so ridiculously heavily on guard play as Villanova does. Four guards! Too many things can go wrong. Such as, just to pull an example out of thin air, your outside shooting can go cold.

Right, Wildcats?

7. I don’t want to say that college coaches call too many timeouts at the end of a game, but in the Florida-Georgetown game Friday, Georgetown was down by four in the final seconds, and the Hoyas missed a three-pointer. The ball went out of bounds to Florida with one second left and, again, a four-point lead.

And I was genuinely surprised when Florida coach Billy Donovan didn’t call timeout before the inbounds pass.

8. In overtime of the Washington-Connecticut game Friday, Williams hurt his leg and had to come out just before shooting a pair of foul shots. Brown took the free throws for Williams and made both, and Williams returned to the game shortly thereafter.

Why aren’t there a lot more feigned injuries in these situations?

Williams and Brown are both 86 percent free-throw shooters, so UConn gained no advantage in this case, but if your 58 percent shooting center gets fouled at a key moment and you’ve got a shooting guard who cans them at an 88 percent clip, isn’t that a good time for an intensely painful cramp?

Don’t lecture me about fair play. It’s a bad rule and if I were a coach I’d be bringing in insurance scam artists to teach my players how to exploit it. “Let some drool spill out, son. Nothing says pain like a little slobber.”

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