My affection for the Other 24, like it did for so many without direct ties, began in the spring of 2006. It was a tough time for me, and I spent even more time than usual glued to college basketball as its regular season wound to a close and the tournaments began. Living in the Shenandoah Valley, the only mid-major conference that received anything close to regular coverage was the Colonial, featuring its best, if mercurial, team, George Mason.
You might recall what happened that spring for that particular group of Patriots.
Mason is often treated as a hero or king amongst the mid-majors -- the standard against which all other stories are compared, the comparison point for which team will be "this year's George Mason." As the first team (but blissfully not the last) from the Other 24 to crack the Final Four in the 64-, 65-. 68-team era, we all -- myself included -- have a soft spot for the Patriots. And that's not just fair, but probably right.
But celebration-worthy does not mean stainless. So today, I come not to praise Mason's uniqueness, but to celebrate its normalcy, its humanity among its peers.
Just like Jon Bon Jovi did I'm rockin' the suburbs
For starters, Mason doesn't exactly sit in the most luxurious of locations. The Patriot Center is not Hinkle Fieldhouse or the Palestra; it's a dark multipurpose arena that looks more like the downtown Verizon Center (for which it competes for concerts) than a rowdy basketball mecca. The campus located in a huge but otherwise humdrum suburb.
But location also helps Mason, because it makes it more than a school or a Cinderella story -- it's a local attraction. As the largest of D.C.'s suburbs, Fairfax has its own center of gravity; as a result, the crowd on Saturday was stuffed with more local fans (especially families) with no relationship to the school other than geography than I can ever recall seeing at a game in the city.
In a haze these days I pull up to the stop light I can feel that something's not right I can feel that someone's blasting me with hate
Success has begat success, of course. Since the 2006 season, Mason's spun off three more 20-win seasons, two more NCAA births, and took the CAA regular season crown to the NCAA's third round last year with a close-but-not-that-close win over a Big East team. And not every Other 24 team can have its legendary program-building coach leave only to replace him with another coach with a Final Four on his resume.
Their Saturday opponent, James Madison, can't say the same. Not that the school suffers from athletic apathy -- they are a perennial I-AA football power, have two straight CAA baseball titles, and boast arguably the nation's best archery program. But though my #800GP partner Tom is a proud JMU alum -- with the Duke Dog and purple and gold #teamballz on his desk to prove it -- he has to look back to 1994 to find their last NCAA birth, and to the 1980s for sustained success to spark their Electric Zoo.
You wouldn't have known from the game. The severely outgunned Dukes, stuck near the bottom of the conference table, played the CAA frontrunners like their lives depended on the game. Star guard Humpty Hitchens -- sorry, his name is Anthony - drained four #superhoops and poured in a career-high 27 points over the game. Andrey Semenov was deadly from behind the arc when he got clear. The Dukes shot 52 percent in the first to carry a lead most of the way. Mason pulled ahead by two as they headed to the locker rooms, but it was clear that Matt Brady's squad came to play.
I'm pissed off but I'm too polite When people break in the McDonald's line
It's easy to see why the Dukes took this game so seriously (as did their fans, many of whom made the trek up to fill the upper bowl.) Mason doesn't just differ from D.C. schools in setting; it's a state school, and that context matters. Mason and JMU don't just compete for conference wins in the Colonial; they fight for students, tuition and state dollars, and in-state reputation.
2006 complicated that. Suddenly, Mason wasn't just a commuter school (which, to be clear, it still is, official classifications be damned). It became a haven for out-of-state applications and the full-cost tuition dollars that come with them. Those were applications that previously went down to Harrisonburg.
So the rivalry on the court wasn't just an expression of our game -- it was the expression of a broader rivalry between two schools and two alumni bases that both punch above their weight class, but see the other as both a peer and a competitor to get to the top.
I got sh*t runnin through my brain It's so intense that I can't explain All alone in my white boy pain Shake your booty while the band complains
Mason's pep band is possibly the best thing I've ever seen. I'm not the first #800GP writer to praisethem, and no slight to the Mason student section (which was as consistently loud and in-tune with the game as any I've seen, Other 24 or otherwise), but...holy crap, the Green Machine just owns the Patriot Center.
I don't know where to start: (a) the sheer size of the band, which is nearly as big as the entire student section at the opposite end of the floor; (b) the massive scepter (OK, let's call it what it is, a pimp stick) of their Yale-educated, DCI-trained, funk-approved director, Doc Nix; (c) their Reel Big Fish cover that was so good it made me want to move back into my 1997 dorm room; or (d) the fact that they have strings and singers and actually use them effectively.
I realize this section cuts against my Us Weekly-esque "Mason's just like us!" theme, so I'll caveat with this: like so many Other 24 schools, Mason doesn't play football, and if they did, maybe all of the musical talent that the school draws from the well-funded Northern Virginia high schools that supply their student body would march the 50 yard line instead of half court, and the pep band would be a 20-member brass ensemble that plays "Rock and Roll Part II" and "Charge." But they don't, and they aren't. So I'll just suggest that you watch their insane Mason Madness performance from last fall and enjoy the aside.
Dude. The Green Machine.
You Better Look Out 'Cause I'm Gonna Say F*ck
Statistically, Mason actually played worse offense than in the first -- shot a lower percentage, couldn't make their free throws. In the box score, JMU scored nearly 38 points -- not exactly a shining example of team defense. But if you saw it...if you were there...then you just knew. Mason was the stronger, the faster, the better team. 50-50 balls (especially on the offensive glass) went into their hands. As Ryan Pearson, their star senior, posted his ninth double-double of the season, the game was never really in doubt, even as JMU clawed back to stay within two at the under-four timeout. Mason finished the game on a 13-3 run.
Mason is still 18-5, arguably the best team in the CAA, and in the conversation for a second straight at-large bid if they fall short in the conference tournament. So maybe Mason isn't human. Maybe they still are in rarified air for the Other 24. The point is, they haven't left their homeland. They are still part of the "All of Us, Each of Us" their former coach preached of.
at GEORGE MASON 89, JAMES MADISON 79 01/28/2012
JAMES MADISON 10-12 (3-8) -- H. Hitchens 10-19 3-4 27; D. Moore 4-10 3-3 11; A. Semenov 6-10 0-0 15; A. Marks 2-8 0-0 4; G. Swindle 1-1 2-2 4; E. Hood 2-3 0-1 4; A. Davis 3-9 4-7 13; A. Diouf 0-0 1-2 1; C. Pierce 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 28-60 13-19 79. GEORGE MASON 18-5 (10-1) -- R. Pearson 11-18 5-7 29; B. Allen 5-10 2-4 14; V. Vaughns 4-12 4-4 14; S. Wright 3-6 0-0 6; M. Morrison 2-4 2-7 6; A. Cornelius 2-5 4-4 10; E. Copes 2-6 0-0 4; J. Arledge 2-3 0-0 4; C. Edwards 0-1 0-0 0; V. Gray 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 32-67 17-26 89.
Three-point goals: JMU 10-24 (A. Semenov 3-5; A. Davis 3-6; A. Hitchens 4-10; A. Marks 0-3), GMU 8-21 (A. Cornelius 2-5; R. Pearson 2-4; V. Vaughns 2-5; S. Wright 0-1; B. Allen 2-4; C. Edwards 0-1; V. Gray 0-1); Rebounds: JMU 28 (A. Semenov 8), GMU 42 (R. Pearson 15); Assists: JMU 14 (A. Hitchens 7), GMU 16 (B. Allen 4); Total Fouls -- JMU 22, GMU 20; Fouled Out: JMU-A. Hitchens; GMU-None.