CAA scores high profile wins in NCAA, NIT

DAYTON, Ohio -- Once No. 11 seed George Mason had salted away a victory against No. 6 Michigan State, once it became clear that no amount of missed free throws (13 in the second half alone) was going to ruin the Patriots' march toward the school's first-ever NCAA Tournament victory, GMU's student section began chanting their mid-major conference's rallying cry.

"C! A! A!" they chanted. "C! A! A!"

But one lone voice came out of the spastic green and gold congregation sitting across from the George Mason bench; the mantra was quickly and enthusiastically joined.

"Bil-ly Pack-er!" came the cry, punctuated with a clap, clap, clap-clap-clap. "Bil-ly! Pack-er!"

The Colonial Athletic Association's favorite whipping boy and the most vocal critic of George Mason's at-large candidacy wasn't in the arena on this night -- he was a pod and a two-hour plane flight away, in Philadelphia's Wachovia Center -- but the students chanted so loudly and boisterously, his ears must have been buzzing.

After the game, George Mason coach Jim Larranaga downplayed the Packer controversy.

"One of the things that makes this country so great is that we are all allowed to speak our mind," Larranaga said. "Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and I'm not offended by that at all. One of the things that I recognize is that most people don't get a chance to see how good the CAA is night in and night out."

"I think we just came out and used that as motivation," said linebacker-like forward Jai Lewis, who finished with 13 points and eight rebounds. "We were No. 9 defensively in field goal percentage. Our RPI was high. We won our conference [regular season]. I think that's enough to let people know we deserve to be here. And now we just beat Michigan State today."

George Mason's head coach took aim at the critics who say that the CAA's increased standing this year is just a mathematical mirage.

"Those RPIs, you think they're inflated because you don't see us on national TV day in and day out," Larranaga said. "The same mathematical formula picked Duke, Connecticut, Villanova and Memphis was used to say that we're 26th in the country."

After the game, in a back room at the University of Dayton Arena, CAA commissioner Tom Yeager gazed up at a TV monitor broadcasting the beaming faces of Packer and Jim Nantz, who were in the middle of their pregame intro for the UAB-Kentucky game. He made a disgusted face, then quickly looked away.

"Don't tell me these guys can't play," said Yeager, who had travelled up from Greensboro, N.C., after CAA tournament champion UNC Wilmington's 88-85 overtime near-miss against George Washington on Thursday. "They can play, and they're good. If you give mid-major teams the opportunity to play on a neutral court, they can play with anybody. [Michigan State] was wearing white jerseys for a reason, because they're supposed to be better. And it's one game on one night, so I don't want to draw any wild conclusions, but this is usually all we get."

The CAA has made the most of its opportunities in the lower-profile postseason tournament as well. Old Dominion (22-9) travelled to Colorado and delivered a 79-61 thrashing on Wednesday in the National Invitation Tournament, then Hofstra (25-6) advanced on Thursday by beating Nebraska in front of a packed home crowd, 79-61. With the two NIT victories, the CAA is a perfect 2-0 over the Big 12.

"We also had the two highest rated teams [RPI No. 81 Virginia Commonwealth and No. 90 Northeastern] that weren't in the NIT field," Yeager said. "They were passed over by some well-known programs, some brand names, and if I'm not mistaken, those guys aren't in the NIT anymore."

So in a week that's seen a measure of Valley validation, there's been a fair amount of CAA confirmation as well. Just ask Michigan State, which was outrebounded 40-24 and only received five free-throw opportunities all night against Mason's smart, tough defense. The Spartans' defense was ripped apart by guard Folarin Campbell (8-for-8 from the floor, 21 points) and big forward Will Thomas (an 18-and-14 double-double).

"It's been unfair," Yeager said. "A lot of the national media are telling these kids they didn't belong, that they got in because of some insider deal with the [selection] committee, and that's bull----. They belong. These kids belong."

Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a daily contributor to ESPN.com.