Ultimate underdog: George Mason started tourney as 150-to-1 long shot

Friday, March 31, 2006

INDIANAPOLIS -- In a small college gym about five minutes from where he grew up, backup guard Jordan Carter sweated through practice, the next step on the road to a place he never imagined he would reach.

He is two wins away from becoming a national champion. In front of his parents. In his hometown. For, of all schools, George Mason.

"I stopped pinching myself after we beat UConn," Carter said of last weekend's regional final. "It's reality now."

America's favorite underdog and those other three teams -- UCLA, LSU and Florida -- were all in town Thursday to begin preparations for one of the most intriguing Final Fours in recent memory.

The Patriots remain the underdogs -- not the 150-to-1 long shot they were when the tournament began, but still 7-to-2. By now, though, they're used to it.

They relish it.

Of the four teams, they were the only ones to open their practice to the media Thursday and coach Jim Larranaga soaked it in, working his team through its paces, then regaling the writers with his stories.

Is this team nervous on basketball's biggest stage?

"The whole idea is to stay upbeat, positive, totally committed to what we want to do and what we want to accomplish, but just to do it in a relaxed atmosphere," Larranaga said. "It's not to feel like 'Oh my goodness, we're here now at the Final Four."'

As if to accentuate that point, Larranaga turned the end of practice into a farce, having his student managers run gassers while the players looked on and laughed. They were in trouble for not knowing how to turn off the scoreboard buzzer when it went off in the middle of the workout at the tiny Marian College arena.

It made for a great photo op.

"The buzzer had a brain of its own," manager Hasan Al-Shingieti said. "Coach got a little mad."

The next step for George Mason (27-7) is Saturday's semifinal against Florida (31-6).

In a different year, against a different team, the Gators could be the inspirational story of this Final Four -- their four sophomores, all roommates, getting on a roll at precisely the right time to make an unexpected trip to Indy.

Joakim Noah leads Florida, which was last at the Final Four in 2000 with a star-studded team that included Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem and Donnell Harvey, all of whom went to the NBA.

Billy Donovan's team comes in this time as a favorite, listed at 2-to-1 in Las Vegas, to bring the first basketball title back to Gainesville.

The Gators may be favorites with the oddsmakers, but probably not in the hearts of most casual observers.

Donovan is in touch with that.

"It's an inspiring thing to see a George Mason out there doing it, that playing together as a team can accomplish great feats," the coach said. "That's a positive thing that they can impact people's lives."

In contrast to the George Mason experience, the Gators ran a tight ship Thursday -- practicing at home, boarding a charter flight, busing to their hotel and being quickly shuffled up to their rooms without interviews.

UCLA (31-6) and LSU (27-8) also practiced in private Thursday -- two more "power" teams that could have made the underdog role their own in a different season.

Led by gregarious and gigantic sophomore center Glen "Big Baby" Davis, the Tigers have made a surprising run -- playing for something bigger than themselves in this, the first season after Hurricane Katrina ripped through Louisiana.

Their opponent, UCLA, also has a heartwarming tale to tell. Sure, the Bruins are the epitome of a powerhouse, seeking their 12th overall title. But they've only won one since John Wooden left Westwood three decades ago. Expectations at Pauley Pavilion are always high, sometimes unbearably so, even when the talent level doesn't match.

"At UCLA, no other banners but national championships go up," Bruins point guard Jordan Farmar said after they beat Memphis to advance. "We haven't really done anything in the eyes of UCLA and UCLA fans."

But while UCLA fans are cheering for their guys, most of America loves an underdog.

Nobody plays that part better this week than George Mason, that inspirational 11th seed from the commuter college outside of Washington.

"Never stop believing. Never stop believing," guard Tony Skinn said after practice, when asked what the Patriots did to make it this far. "We're doing it. And I'm sure any other team that works just as hard could do it too someday."

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