Life is never the same after the Final Four, especially for a mid-major program like George Mason.
Since the program’s incredible run to the 2006 Final Four in which it beat basketball powerhouses like Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut, the Patriots not only proved they could hang with the big boys, but are now expected to play far into the postseason on a yearly basis.
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While Mason had advanced to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament three previous times under head coach Jim Larranaga before 2006, the Patriots’ wins against Michigan State and North Carolina in the first and second rounds busted brackets around the nation and turned more than a few heads. A victory against Wichita State in the Sweet Sixteen, and Mason was set for a clash with second-seeded Connecticut in the Elite Eight.
But during the press conferences on the day prior to the match-up with the Huskies, it was evident UConn was not phased of Mason’s recent accomplishments.
“They asked one of the UConn players what he knew about George Mason, and he didn’t know any of our players or what conference we played in,” Bill Rohland said. “He didn’t know anything about us even though we had gotten as far as we did … they were still kind of dismissive. The Mason players knew all about the UConn team and had watched them on television.”
George Mason went on to defeat UConn in overtime to secure the school’s only Final Four berth.
Rohland, who graduated from Mason in 1993, has been working as a radio broadcaster for basketball team since 1999 and seen the perception of the program change drastically over the last several years.
Gone are the questions of where Mason is located (Fairfax, Va.) or which conference it is in (Colonial Athletic Association).
“Before 2006, we would go through the airport, and people knew you were with a college, but there wasn’t really any name recognition,” Rohland said. “Sometimes people would even ask are you guys Division I? Since the Final Four, there has been no question about who George Mason is.”
Two years after the Final Four run, Mason returned to the NCAA Tournament in 2008. Not only was the name recognition night and day, but so were the expectations.
“In 2008, even though Mason was the lower seed, I felt like there was a ton of pressure,” Rohland said. “We played Notre Dame in the first round, and I felt there were a lot of expectations because of what had happened in 2006. Everybody expected the 2008 team to do the same thing.”
The Patriots, however, exited early, losing to the Irish, 68-50.
George Mason received an at-large bid in 2011, and advanced to the second round with a victory against Villanova.
“In 2011, the play-by-play call from Gus Johnson was, ‘George Mason is back,’ even though it was a completely different team with new players,” Rohland said.
The Patriots then fell to No. 1 seeded Ohio State, which also marked Larranaga’s last game as the program’s head coach.
Although Larranaga, fended off offers from other schools since 2006, after 14 years with Mason, he was finally lured away to Miami (Fla.) after the 2010-2011 season. Paul Hewitt, who had served 11 seasons as Georgia Tech’s head coach, was hired as Larranaga’s replacement.
“Fifteen years ago, I don’t think anyone would have thought we could have gotten a former ACC coach who took a team to the NCAA finals to come to Fairfax,” Rohland said. “Because the program was able to continue to win and build after the Final Four run, we were able to get a coach that’s won almost 300 games.”
While the staff has changed, the expectations are still there that George Mason should be a team that competes for an NCAA Tournament bid every single year.
The Patriots won 24 games last season, but did not receive an NCAA bid or NIT invitation.
“A lot of teams would have been thrilled with winning 24 games without a postseason bid,” Rohland said. “It was a disappointment overall for Mason not to go to the postseason — that’s how the bar has been raised.
“I don’t know if it’s fair, but that’s the reality – and it’s all because 2006.”