Watching George Mason's historic run through the NCAA Tournament had University at Buffalo coach Reggie Witherspoon wondering what might have been.
UB harbored NCAA hopes entering Selection Sunday last year after losing in the Mid-American Conference Tournament final. But the Bulls' bubble burst when the brackets didn't include them. George Mason, which failed to reach the Colonial Athletic Association title game, was in a similar situation this year. Many people didn't give the Patriots a shot to get in, but they got a ticket to the Big Dance and they haven't left the party yet.
"I started to look at George Mason before the selections came out," Witherspoon said Monday. "Just talking to different people from different leagues, some people said to me, 'It's going to be interesting to see what happens with the Colonial this year relative to what happened to you guys last year.' Our leagues are similar and the non-conference schedules were similar.
"Then as the tournament unfolded, you start to say, 'Wow.' You do realize at that point once you get in strange things can happen. We didn't get in, but I'm glad they are opening people's thoughts to what can happen for a school regardless of what league they're in."
George Mason has given hope to mid-major programs that the improbable is possible. Given the Patriots' tournament success, another thought has to cross Witherspoon's mind:
"That could be us someday."
Why not UB?
Why shouldn't the Bulls entertain thoughts of their own tourney run? A tip-in at the buzzer in the MAC final kept UB out of the tournament last year. If the Bulls had gotten in, it's not too crazy to think they could have made some noise.
There are a lot of similarities between George Mason and UB. Both are suburban state commuter schools of similar size with nearly identical facilities. They play in respected mid-major conferences, though the CAA may be a step ahead of the MAC with two teams in the NCAAs and participants in the Final Four and the NIT semifinals (Old Dominion).
One advantage George Mason has over UB is in local recruiting. The Patriots draw players from their home state of Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., recruiting grounds that are far more fertile than Western New York. But signing Calvin Cage out of Maryland and Turner Battle from North Carolina are examples of Witherspoon's ability to lure out-of-state talent to the Amherst campus.
College basketball has changed dramatically since Larry Bird-led Indiana State and Penn were the last mid-majors to reach the Final Four in 1979. The NCAA Tournament will always belong to teams from the power conferences. Money and tradition ensure they will continue to attract the best high school players. The difference is those players rarely stay in college for four years, if they go to college.
Meanwhile, the mid-majors are getting the kids who used to sit on the bench at Duke, North Carolina and Connecticut but now want to go to a school where they will get a chance to play immediately.
When the mid-majors hit the court against the big boys, coaches like George Mason's Jim Larranaga always preach to their players that they're just as good as all those McDonald's All-Americans on the opposing teams. For the last two weeks, the Patriots have shown that a little talent, heart, chemistry and the power of motivation can take you a long way.
"That's why you always want that shot," Witherspoon said. "When you get into a tournament like this, it isn't the best teams that win all the time. You've just got to be better on that day. But you need that day. George Mason got it and took advantage of the opportunity."
Maybe UB will have its day. George Mason has shown the Bulls that sometimes NCAA dreams do come true.