tampabay.com

Gators say 'Cinderella' is a heavyweight

Forget slipper talk - George Mason "a very good basketball team.'

By ANTONYA ENGLISH
Published March 29, 2006


When Tony Skinn was deciding where to play basketball after two years at a junior college, the Maryland native chose George Mason because he was familiar with the Colonial Athletic Association and the Virginia school wasn't too far from home.

As extra incentive, he thought the team might have a shot at playing in the NCAA Tournament.

So the senior guard isn't ashamed to admit that what has happened to him and his Patriots teammates over the past three weeks has far exceeded his expectations.

George Mason, the team that had never won a tournament game before March 17, is in the Final Four. The Patriots (27-7) play Florida (31-6) at 6:07 p.m. Saturday in the first of two national semifinal games at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis.

"Definitely not," Skinn said when asked if he could have envisioned this. "I wanted to come to George Mason because I knew in the conference George Mason had a good chance of going to the NCAA Tournament. That would've been just a great accomplishment for me. I would've never thought I'd be here."

Dubbed this year's tournament Cinderella, George Mason is the first No.11 seed to make it to the Final Four and has left Michigan State, defending national champion North Carolina, Wichita State and No.1 seed Connecticut on the side of its road to the Final Four.

The rest of the nation can view the Patriots as the little mid major fairy tale team, but the Florida players and coach Billy Donovan won't be among them.

"I don't even know what Cinderella means right now," UF forward Joakim Noah said. "I don't care about anything that's said about them. It's about the game."

"I don't think George Mason is a Cinderella team," Donovan said. "I know in the public perception they may be. ... I look at who we're playing as a basketball team and don't get wrapped up in the perception. They are a very, very good basketball team. I'm not looking at it as we're going up against a Cinderella team, I'm looking at it as we're going up against a very good basketball team that is taking on all comers.

A big part of the Patriots' success is a luxury most big schools don't have any more: veteran players. The three senior starters are fifth-year players.

"It certainly has helped us," coach Jim Larranaga said. "Our three seniors are older guys and I certainly think their maturity and experience helps us. It helped us throughout this season and particularly in the NCAA run. I think it was very apparent when we played North Carolina, who had a very young team, it was clear that there is a difference. If Carolina had Sean May and Raymond Felton and those other guys back (who left early for the NBA), it probably would have been a different story."

Armed with guards who can shoot from the perimeter, George Mason also has a solid post game led by Jai Lewis, a 6-foot-7, 275-pound forward who leads the team with 13.7 points and 7.7 rebounds; and Will Thomas, a 6-7 member of the CAA all-defensive team who has four of his eight career double doubles in the NCAA Tournament, three in the past four games.

"A lot of people doubted us, so we are just out there proving them wrong," Lewis said. "I don't think we really have anything else to say to them. We let our actions on the court speak for us. ... There are a lot of great mid-major teams out there. They just need the opportunity. We definitely got the opportunity when we got selected on Selection Sunday."

They are clearly making the most of it.

The Patriots are shooting 43.8 percent from the field in the tournament and holding opponents to 39.4 percent. Guard Folarin Campbell (62.9 percent) is averaging 16.8 points, five rebounds and 3.3 assists in the tourney. Every starter averages double figures.

"George Mason is very balanced," Donovan said. "They have two low-post players who are good passers and good offensive scorers. They have athleticism and strength. They have three guards that are interchangeable, who can shoot 3s and drive it. Going into this game, it is very clear how good George Mason is just based on the teams that they have beat up to this point in time. So, there is a lot to get ready for, and we are excited for the challenge to play them."

The Patriots say they are up for the challenge of the Gators, but along the way they will continue having the time of their lives.

"It's like a magic carpet ride," Larranaga said. "It's like going to Disneyland and being able to pick out your favorite ride and ride as much as you want. It's the most fun thing you can do as a college basketball player."