Saturday marks 10 years to the day since George Mason did the unimaginable.
On March 26, 2006, the No. 11 seed Patriots took down No. 1 Connecticut in overtime 86-84. George Mason, a school that had never won an NCAA tournament game before 2006, went to the Final Four. It’s one of the great stories in recent sports history.
With its miracle run, from barely in the field to the national semifinals, George Mason cemented itself in NCAA tournament lore. They became the ultimate Cinderella. Even 10 years later, it’s not uncommon to hear references. “Who could be this year’s George Mason?” analysts ask. They’ve become synonymous with the story of the underdog in college basketball.
It was a perfect storm for Mason, and they certainly had the first ingredient: the element of surprise.
“George Mason was an unknown,” said Jim Larrañaga, the Patriots’ head coach at the time and current Miami head coach. “Most people didn’t know it was the largest state university in the state of Virginia, they thought it was a small private school.”
George Mason isn’t the only school to come from the “unknown” and become a March Madness story. Cinderella stories are part of what makes March so great. Some teams take the story into the second weekend. What Mason did that made it so special was to take it into April, something that has few, if any equals in college basketball history.
Here's how it happened.
It started with a goal. Not a dream as much as it was an expectation. One that may have been laughable outside the program, but was taken seriously inside it.
Larrañaga said he brought in friend and sport psychologist Dr. Bob Rotella shortly before the season, on October 30, 2005. Rotella asked the team to visualize what they could accomplish in the season. Senior co-captain Lamar Butler responded that the team would go to the Final Four.
“I believed it. I wouldn’t say I had a dream, but it was my goal to get to the Final Four,” fellow senior Jai Lewis said.
Butler had plenty of reason behind his confidence. He saw a team that returned seven of the top eight scorers from the previous season. He saw a team that had committed to putting in a lot of work in the offseason. Lewis said his summer routine included running three miles every day and countless open gym practices.
Larrañaga was optimistic from the start, too.
“Everybody in that room, the coaches, the players, all thought that we were going to have a great season,” said the head coach, who was in his ninth season at the Fairfax, Virginia school. “I told the players I thought this could be the best season in George Mason history.”
The season didn’t start in a way that was indicative of a historic season, however. After a season-opening win vs. UC Irvine and an overtime loss to a ranked Wake Forest team, Creighton beat George Mason 72-52. The loss prompted some changes for the Patriots, as Larrañaga moved point guard Tony Skinn to the the wing, and brought three-man Folarin Campbell to the point. Larrañaga liked Campbell’s mindset of distributing, while he saw Skinn as more of a scorer.
Skinn, the point guard in previous seasons for Mason, wasn’t a fan of the move at first, but he came around.
“Tony accepted the role and that was a big part of our success,” Larrañaga said. Skinn ended the season second on the team in scoring with 12.6 points per game.
The move worked, and the Patriots put together an impressive regular season. They finished it 22-6 overall and 15-3 in the CAA, sparking talk of a potential NCAA tournament bid.
That talk slowed down after the CAA semifinals, where Hofstra beat Mason 58-49. Skinn was suspended one game for punching a Hofstra player in the game, and the automatic bid was lost. Their postseason fate was in the hands of the selection committee.
On Selection Sunday, despite the newfound doubt, George Mason heard their name called. They were an 11 seed, paired with No. 6 Michigan State in the first round in Dayton, Ohio. CBS analyst Billy Packer was not shy about his disagreement with the choice on the selection show, naming Mason as a team who should not have made the tournament. From the outside looking in, there wasn’t exactly a positive vibe about the Patriots heading into the first round.
“All the experts predicted we wouldn’t get in,” Larrañaga said. But he didn’t let that get to the team. By encouraging them to have fun and enjoy the moment, he has happy with how relaxed the Patriots were.
“The pressure was never on us, at all,” Jai Lewis said. “We just went out there and had fun. Coach L’s No. 1 goal once we got selected was to make sure we have fun and don’t take it all too seriously.”
Larrañaga added that he thought the team was in “a perfect frame of mind to play great.” And they did.
In the first round against Michigan State Folarin Campbell went 8-for-8 from the field and led the team with 21 points and they upset the Spartans 75-65.
Up next? Mighty North Carolina, a No. 3 seed and the defending national champion. The Patriots handled the Tar Heels 65-60, this time with Lamar Butler leading the way with 18 points.
Now George Mason, the team whose tournament credentials were tested by many, was now in the Sweet 16. Their next opponent was another mid-major in No. 7 seed Wichita State, who the Patriots beat in the regular season. Four players scored in double figures and Mason won 63-55 to head to Elite Eight.
Waiting there was their toughest test yet, No. 1 seed Connecticut. The regional was held in Washington, D.C., not far from George Mason’s campus in Fairfax. But whatever geographic advantage Mason might have enjoyed would be severely tested by the talented roster they would face. Led by Rudy Gay, the Huskies had five players taken in the 2006 NBA Draft.
What came next was one of the biggest upsets in NCAA tournament history.
George Mason was down by 12 in the first half, and as much as nine in the second. They were at a noticeable size disadvantage. They had to mostly rely on their starters. And even with overtime, the Patriots were able to pull it off. Jai Lewis had 20 points, Will Thomas and Lamar Butler each had 19, Folarin Campbell had 15 and Tony Skinn had 10.
“What we did was totally a surprise, a shock, to the experts, the prognosticators, the fans,” Larrañaga said. “Nobody expected George Mason to even beat Michigan State in the first round. They certainly didn’t expect us to beat the defending national champion North Carolina. And there’s no way anybody could have predicted we would beat the No. 1 seed in the tournament, the University of Connecticut.
“When you are the underdog, and you upset someone in the first round, that happens regularly. It rarely happens in the Elite Eight.”
Rarely may be modest. It had never happened before, and hasn’t happened since. At least, not an upset of this magnitude. Two other 11 seeds have made the Final Four: 1986 LSU and 2011 VCU, but neither program was as unknown to the average basketball fan as George Mason was in 2006. The Patriots were the first program from a mid-major conference to get there since Larry Bird’s Indiana State team, but the Sycamores were no surprise. This was truly unprecendented.
Their Cinderella story came to an end with a 73-58 loss to eventual champion Florida, but that part has become a footnote compared to their four wins in that tournament.
So what made the 2005-06 George Mason team so special? What enabled this kind of run?
There’s a recurring answer from the players on that team when they are asked that question.
“I don’t think people understood how close we were as a team,” Lewis said. “We were together pretty much all the time, no one went anywhere by themselves. The most important thing is we had fun as a team, on and off the court.”
Lewis said there were all sorts of events and places the team would go together, like campus events, the pool, or bowling. The chemistry showed in March.
“The closeness that we had off the court transcended into on the court, and trusting each other,” Skinn said. “It doesn’t matter if I score 30 or if you score 30, because I trust you. I would say we had seven to eight leaders. Most teams have one or two.”
Larrañaga keeps reminders of the run in his office at Miami, where he has won two ACC coach of the year awards in the past four years, including this season. He left George Mason for Miami in 2011, but among what he brought with him is a Final Four poster that hangs in his office, bobbleheads of the five Mason starters and one of the nets from the UConn win.
“The run to the Final Four has changed my life completely,” Larranga said. “It hasn’t changed my philosophy, my work ethic, or my belief in what my role is as the head basketball coach. What did change was opportunities that were created by our success.”Opportunities opened up for the players, too.
Lamar Butler played overseas and in the NBA D-League. Now, he’s a high school coach at St. John’s in Washington, D.C., where he just led his team to a Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championship, and he runs a sporting goods business.
Tony Skinn played overseas and played for Nigeria in the 2012 Olympics. He’s now an assistant coach at Louisiana Tech.
“I feel blessed that opportunity,” Skinn said. “I’m still the same player, but I don’t think I have the same chance to go play right away. With the Final Four, it put everybody on the map.”
Jai Lewis turned down a chance at the NFL to stick with basketball, where he also got some overseas experience. He is now an assistant teacher and a behavior specialist in Baltimore County Public Schools.
Folarin Campbell, Will Thomas and Gabe Norwood all also played overseas.
What becomes abundantly clear with the players from that George Mason squad is how much fun they had along the way. Larrañaga successfully implemented an low-pressure environment, where his players are able to enjoy being around each other. Basketball was fun for the 2005-06 Patriots, and that translated into success. It's what Larrañaga has brought to Miami, where the Hurricanes just played their way to a 27-8 season and made it to the Sweet 16.
“One of the things that we constantly emphasize to our players is that life is a journey, and that you want to create great memories,” Larrañaga said. “While we were going through our run to the Final Four, we emphasized to the players that these are memories that they are creating that will last a lifetime.”
What fantastic memories George Mason has of 10 years ago. And it will surely still be talked about 10 years from now.