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Mason relishes living small-timers' dream

INDIANAPOLIS -- In 1973, a couple of young, eager coaches named Tom O'Connor and Jim Larranaga attended their first Final Four in St. Louis. Befitting their status in the profession, they sat near the top of the old Checkerdome and saw Bill Walton lead UCLA over Memphis State in the championship game.

Late Friday morning, O'Connor and Larranaga, George Mason's athletics director and head coach, respectively, walked out onto the floor of the RCA Dome. They looked around the massive arena, where 15,000 hoop fans had gathered to watch America's favorite underdog go through a 50-minute practice.

"Some people move up in the world," O'Connor said. "We've moved down."

Yes, they've made it down to the floor of the Final Four, to the biggest stage in college basketball. Tonight, George Mason will meet Florida in the national semifinals, attempting to extend the most improbable run in NCAA Tournament history and earn a spot in Monday night's title game.

The Patriots are loving every minute of it. Larranaga wouldn't have it any other way. On the day before the tourney began, he brought his players together at center court and told them he planned to have more fun than any other coach in the field. He told them to make sure to do the same.

They've had a better time than anyone could have imagined, winning four games to become the first "mid-major" in 29 years to reach the Final Four -- the only true sleeper to get this far. Larrana ga, a former Providence College star who has spent 20 years coaching at the mid-major level, is having the most fun of all.

Larranaga stood on the court for the full hour, watching his team work out. He moved with the shuffling gait of the middle-aged former athlete, a huge smile on his face. His players wore the same happy, exuberant expressions, as if making sure not to take any of this experience for granted.

Make no mistake, Larranaga is a major talent as a coach and a talker. He stole the show Friday, answering every question in vivid, intricate detail. He talked about commuting 90 minutes from the Bronx to play high school ball for the legendary Jack Curran in New York City; about the inequities in the college game; about the movie "Hoosiers"; about his father; about life and underdogs.

"Our kids have done a wonderful job of handling the moment," Larranaga said. "Their attitudes have captured the hearts of Americans. It's been great to see the whole country embrace them. We all like the underdog, the overachiever. We kind of see ourselves that way. We're a bunch of no-name guys playing in the biggest sporting event in the world and loving it."

Larranaga has seen the movie "Hoosiers" at least a dozen times. There's a scene near the end of the film where the players from tiny Hickory High are about to leave the locker room to play the state championship game. A player dedicates the game to "all the small schools that never had a chance to get here."

That's what George Mason is doing -- representing all the colleges that never got here, and all the dedicated coaches who dreamed of making a Final Four but never got that one big break. It's fitting that the journey ends in Indianapolis, in the sport's emotional heartland, in the city where the real Milan High (the model for Hickory) won its improbable state title in 1954.

"That story has been recounted for all of us to enjoy," Larranaga said. "But we're not trying to compare ourselves to them. That would be a disservice to them. What we want to do is live our own dream. Where it takes us, who knows?"

The fact is, George Mason isn't that great an underdog. Oh, it relishes the role. The Patriots are loose and confident. But you don't reach the Final Four if you're a fluke. They're very good and extremely well-coached and playing with a strong sense of belief.

If you took the team names off the NCAA tourney stat sheets, you'd assume they were an elite national power. The Patriots are shooting 48.3 percent from the floor to their foes' 39.4 percent. They're making 42 percent of their three-pointers. They've gotten to the line more than twice as often as the opponents. They've committed only 51 fouls and 42 turnovers.

And that was against the likes of Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut. So much for CBS announcer Billy Packer's notion that the Colonial Athletic Association and other mid-majors didn't belong in the tournament. Larranaga said he wasn't upset with Packer. He told his team it was the best thing that could have happened. It raised the stakes for the mid-majors. Now it'll be hard for the selection committee to overlook them in the future.

"I love it," Larranaga said. "I told Billy, when I see you I'm going to give you a big hug and a kiss, because it created all this."

Late in Friday's practice, Larranaga walked over to the press table, where Packer was sitting at midcourt. "I know you've done 25 of these," he told Packer, "but this is my first Final Four." Then he shook Packer's hand.

A few minutes later, the George Mason practice ended. Larranaga brought his players and staff together at center court. They walked to the end of the court and shook hands with the school's cheerleaders and band members, thanking them for their support.

Finally, they walked back to midcourt and waved to the fans who had shown up in such large numbers to see them. As the players disappeared from view, fans were on their feet, cheering George Mason, and all the worthy teams that never got this far.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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