By Scoop Jackson
Page 2

This was supposed to be about Marcus Williams.

This was supposed to be about the separator, the difference-maker, the "fulcrum point," the guy I was telling anyone and everyone who would listen is the best and purest PG in the game not playing for the Phoenix Suns.

Thirteen hundred words I had laid out. Reserved for this space.

But things change. It's amazing what one punch to the groin can do.

Tony Skinn
AP Photo/Al Behrman
He might not be GMU's best player, but the Patriots will go as far as Tony Skinn leads them.

See, there's a difference between being the most popular player or even the best player on a team, and being the player who is the most important. And often during this time of year, or when other sports come to their annual apex, it's us -- the media -- who focus so much of our attention on the stars, then are surprised when a Scott Brosius wins the MVP of the World Series, or a Joe Dumars wins the MVP of the NBA Finals, or a Hines Ward drives home in a new Esco. We miss the significant difference in which player is going to be the most significant.

That player who comes from nowhere to gowhere. The mos Common denominator. And while Lamar Butler is the "darling of the media" of this year's Final Four, it's his RHM, his PIC, his H4L, who will be the reason George Mason -- if he does what he's capable of -- will make history their story.

World, meet Tony Oludewa Jeffrey Skinn. The most important basketball player on the planet.

For the next 48 hours.

I discovered Tony Skinn along with everyone else.

Somewhere between the unsurprising win over Michigan State and the shocking upset of defending champ UNC, somewhere between sitting on the end of the bench in a suit in Game 1 of this NCAA Tournament and scoring 14 points, dispensing four dimes and ripping someone twice against Wichita State in Game 1 of the Sweet Sixteen, Skinn's game got noticed.

His poise, his quickness, his fearlessness in the middle of games that his team is supposed to lose -- even though he's part of a guard unit that's been labeled the "on welfare" version of Villanova's trio of Foye, Ray and Lowry -- singled him out like the number on his jersey.

"There's something about that dude," I told my nephew while watching the GMU game last Sunday. "Like he's the player they can least afford to be without."

Which is almost what it came to. After his well-documented "Golota" to Hofstra's Loren Stokes at the end of their CAA semifinal game (a game the Patriots eventually lost 55 seconds after Skinn was ejected), coach Jim Larranaga suspended Skinn quicker than the Duke president suspended the men's lacrosse team. And because of that loss, because of that hit, there was a belief, especially in Skinn's mind, that he might have cost his school -- the school that looked out for him when no other school in the country would give him the opportunity to show that the 26/5/5 he averaged in high school was no fluke -- an opportunity to get into the Dance.

"I've never seen anyone look like that," Butler said in a Washington Post interview about his right-hand man's state of mind less than two weeks ago. "I've been with him for three years and I told him I didn't want his career to end this way. We wanted to come out and get a victory not just for the CAA and ourselves, but for Tony, too."

Which they did. And in the process the Bishop Magic Don Juans (check the colors: green for the money, gold for the honey … chhuuurrch!!!) found the necessary evil that got them to Indianapolis. And they gave Skinn, aka Takoma Park (Md.)'s finest, the understanding of what life without basketball this time of year can be like from the inside looking in. Which is why he might -- in a twisted way -- have more to prove than anybody who's going to bless the floor come Saturday. He's trying to redeem himself while everyone else is just playing ball.

At some point that has become his advantage.

There were 11 seconds left in a BracketBusters game in February in Wichita. The best team in the best mid-major conference in the country was about to take the Patriots into overtime and kill the dream they didn't even know they were about to have. That's when Tony hit the skins for his 21st, 22nd and 23rd points with one stroke. His fifth ménage a trois of the night.

George Mason 70, Wichita State 67.

The clock wound down and the score never changed. That was the game that changed everything for the Virginia school's season. That's the one that let them know.

Tony Skinn
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
Skinn held his own against UConn and arguably the best point guard in the game.

It also let them know that when it's necessary, that if it ever came down to that, that someone besides Butler, third guard Folarin Campbell, forward Will Thomas and center Jai White is going to be "Nestlé" when it's "crunch time."

Which is why everything comes down to him now. When the stakes are higher. When redemption is less forgiving, but harder to attain. But Tony Skinn was born for this. Born to face the challenges of the best point guard in the game last week (Williams, UConn) and the most dangerous one this week (Taurean Green, Florida) and still come out with one more game to play. He knows there is a reason he is where he is right now in his life, and why in this Cinderfella story he's Dana Dane.

"Basketball is more than a physical game, it's a mental game, too," all 6-foot-1 and 175 pounds of him said to both USA Today and the (Hampton Roads, Va.) Daily Press. "I think we all came to George Mason with the same intent -- to be able to play ball close to home and to be able to play the right way. We probably all could have gone to bigger schools, but we took the chance, took the opportunity to come here and I think [right now] we're making the most of it."

And the most of it, in his case, is his combination of speed, tenacity and the ability to score from anywhere on the court. Because of his size and non-stop movement on both ends, he quietly might be the biggest matchup problem left in this tournament (and that includes LSU's Glen Davis).

Plus, being a 23-year old senior in a game in which there are no Pervis Ellisons or Toby Baileys or Carmelo Anthonys has its privileges.

But what about Marcus Williams? The one who's supposed to be here? The one this column was supposed to be about?

Talking to a UConn coach the other day, I asked him if Marcus Williams -- even after the loss -- is ready for the League.

"More than ready," was what he replied.

I didn't go further and ask him about George Mason, or Tony Skinn in particular. I didn't have to.

Because Marcus Williams will get another chance for someone to write about him. His one shining moment will extend beyond Luther Vandross' voice on Monday night.

But the same can't be said about Tony Skinn. Remember, this was not supposed to be about him. He ain't big like that, he's not Hollywood. In this game, game recognize game when it's still in the game. And Skinn has one more game to play. If not two.

And although Skinn might not be better than Williams -- and although he might not be better than his teammate Butler -- he is more important. And if you don't think "important" bests "best" at this time of year, if you don't think Tony Skinn's importance to his team's destiny in this magical run is of greater value than anything anyone else on any of the four remaining teams has, just ask anyone at NC State how they feel about a player by the name of Lorenzo Charles.

Then you'll understand why these 1,340 words were so necessary.

Scoop Jackson is a national columnist for Page 2 and a contributor to ESPN The Magazine. He has weekly segments on "Cold Pizza" and "Classic Now" and is a regular forum guest on "Rome Is Burning." He resides in Chicago. You can e-mail Scoop here. Sound off to Page 2 here.