WASHINGTON -- The closer you get to the national championship,
the farther away the game of basketball seems to get.
When you arrive at the Sweet 16, there's a sense of distorted
detachment that an NBA arena or football dome provides. The venue is a
towering cylinder filled with tens of thousands of faces, each
with a story of how far they travelled, how they came by their
tickets. From floor level, the messages of the acronym sign-holders
and the body-painters in the 400 level are unreadably tiny. The game
itself is reduced to snapshot memories and short video clips to be
played in perpetua on highlight shows; the whole experience can
sometimes be more like a heat-and-serve "college basketball product"
than actual sport.
Teams from power conferences are used to this, because they live it
night in and night out. But this isn't where George Mason or Wichita
State come from -- both teams are cut from the thick and tangled
fabric of mid-major basketball. They come from the dark, cozy Patriot
Center and the wild, rowdy Roundhouse, both light-years away from
national TV and 20,000-strong crowds. And both had to slay a lot of
giants to earn their way here, in this strange dream-state called
the Washington Regional, with a spot in the NCAA's Elite Eight on the
George Mason's house is just eight Metro stops away from the Verizon
Center, outside the Beltway loop in little Fairfax, Va. But on Friday
night in downtown Washington, they felt right at home; in addition to
the school's alotted quarter of the arena, small pockets of Patriot
green and gold speckled the Connecticut and Washington sections. In
the first two minutes, the Patriot players rode that support to an
early 9-0 lead, fueled by Folarin Campbell 3-pointers.
"At the beginning of the game I was left wide open," said Campbell
afterwards. "I just took the shots and they just happened to fall."
"I think that got us on our heels," said Wichita State senior forward
Paul Miller, the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year.
"Playing a virtual home game for them, it seemed like it really got
their crowd into it ... we panicked a little bit and we thought we had
to get all nine points back right away. And there were 38 minutes left
in the game."
If this late-March battle represented a MVC-vs.-CAA Mid-Major Super
Bowl of sorts, the ensuing 38 minutes recalled the blowout NFC wins
back in the late 80's and early 90's. Wichita State looked tired and
lost and small against the NCAA's dizzying panorama, especially on the
defensive end. For much of the contest, the Shockers only showed
sizzle when George Mason slumped, and were never able to find the
solid team play that typified their 26-9 record and regular-season
championship in the Missouri Valley Conference, the toughest mid-major
league in the land.
Just as they did in their first matchup on BracketBusters Saturday,
Wichita State won the war on the glass, this time by a 43-32 count.
But the Shockers required 20 more shots (64 to 44) to achieve the same number
of field goals (20), resulting in a 31.3 percent shooting performance. P.J. Couisnard and Sean Ogirri, catalysts in the wins over Seton Hall and Tennessee, combined to shoot an abysmal 3-for-21.
The game showed both the ups and downs of the starless and selfish
systems that typify the NCAA's new mid-major powers. Wichita State
received approximately one-and-a-half solid games from its four-man
nucleus, and the resulting disaster fooled many first-time observers
into believing that they didn't belong -- much less in their home
whites. George Mason, on the other hand, transcended any and all
distractions, and showed the same solid team effort that they have all
season: four Patriots finished in double figures, highlighted by
forward Will Thomas' double-double.
"I've been a head coach for 20 years," said GMU head coach Jim
Larranaga afterwards. "I think one of the things that separates this
team is that we have so many well-balanced weapons. By that I mean
that we don't have one go-to guy on the inside in Jai [Lewis], we have
two, because Will can do the work inside. We don't have one
three-point threat, we have several ... you have Lamar [Butler], Tony
[Skinn] and Folarin shooting threes."
And even if they don't win another game this season, even if UConn
sends them on the short ride back home on Sunday, George Mason's
Patriot heroes are the last mid-major left standing in the tournament,
the first to reach the Elite Eight since Kent State in 2002. In
achieving that, they've given the Colonial Athletic Association the
deep March run it has dreamed of for two long decades, and have told
future selection committees all they need to know about whether teams
from the CAA can play.
"Our league didn't get the respect that we know it deserves," said
Larranaga. "We had a great league, and it's prepared us very well for
the tournament and I think that's why we're doing so well."
And as the seconds ticked away on their third NCAA win, senior guard
Butler hugged the ball and savored the moment while the fans chanted
the conference's rallying cry of recent weeks: "C! A! A!"
"It was an adrenaline rush from my head down to my toes," Butler
recalled later. "It was an awesome feeling, I don't know how to
describe it. I looked at my father, he was smiling from ear to ear.
They were all smiling, my brother, my mother. It was just awesome."
And then, the buzzer sealed a 63-55 Mason victory that was far more
lopsided than the score indicates. But 60 seconds after the horn
sounded, the joyous celebration from the triple-decker layer cake of
Mason fans was silenced by another blast -- it was time to move out,
so Connecticut and Washington, the participants in the evening's
second regional semifinal, could move in.
For George Mason, this is truly a strange, beautiful, surreal new world.
Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a daily contributor to ESPN.com.