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Old 07-15-2006, 06:32 PM   #1
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Default Success of George Mason Has Helped Smaller Colleges & Universities.

Mason's Final Four run has helped smaller schools - a little

By Michael Marot

Associated Press


Jim Larranaga still talks about George Mason's incredible Final Four run everywhere he goes - at fundraisers and camps, around coaches and especially when he's recruiting.

If last year's success has done anything, it has given Larranaga more credibility when he walks into a home. Prep players now are more willing to take calls and make unofficial visits, and no longer confuse the northern Virginia school with neighbors such as George Washington and James Madison.

To Larranaga, it's a small but necessary step in the endless quest to woo college prospects.

"It's nice because they recognize your face a little more, they recognize your name more and George Mason gets some name recognition now," he said after spending a few days at the Adidas camp in Atlanta.

Those who criticized conferences such as the Colonial Athletic and the Missouri Valley for getting multiple bids were proven wrong when Bradley and Wichita State reached the round of 16 and George Mason did the unthinkable by going all the way to the Final Four in Indianapolis.

The coaches association even cited those conferences' results when arguing for tournament expansion this summer.

For mid-major programs, such as George Mason, last year's tournament success has helped in recruiting, though it has not exactly been a boon.

While most top recruits still dream of playing for prominent programs, the next wave of recruits does appear more receptive to considering a mid-major. That's progress.

"I think the fringe guys used to wait it out a little longer to see if they could get to those (bigger) programs," Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said. "Now they're more willing to make a commitment to a mid-major a little quicker."

Jacobson and others understand they likely never will be able to compete for players with powerhouses such as Duke, Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina and UCLA.

But at last week's Nike All-America Camp, where 120 of the top prospects played, some players acknowledged that last year's tournament successes did get their attention.

Keenan Ellis, a 6-foot-10, 187-pound forward from Indiana, played last season at North College Hill in Cincinnati, where he was flanked by two of this year's top recruits - O.J. Mayo and Bill Walker.

He lists his final choices as Indiana, Tennessee and Alabama-Birmingham, where former Hoosiers coach Mike Davis landed.

Players say mid-majors do have some attractions: The potential to play early in their career and earn more minutes, and the opportunity to become a national darling, like George Mason, come tournament time.

"It makes you look at them differently when you see a school like George Mason going to the Final Four," Ellis said. "With mid-majors a lot of players look at them like, 'If you can't go high Division I, then you go to a mid-major so you can play."'

So far only one prominent player who attended the Nike camp - Chris Wright of Trotwood, Ohio - has committed to a smaller school. Wright, a 6-6, 211-pound forward, will attend Dayton in part so his mother can continue coming to games.

"It was hard at first, because I knew people would be saying 'Why go there?"' he said. "I just feel that everyone has to start somewhere and that no school that's big-time now was as good in the past as they are now."

Illinois coach Bruce Weber said that when he was at Southern Illinois, the staff's goal was to get one player each year from a premier summer basketball camp. That, he believed, could lead to maintaining success, something the Salukis have done despite losing two head coaches - Weber and Purdue's Matt Painter - to the Big Ten.

Gonzaga has been even more successful. Coach Mark Few acknowledges he's now winning recruiting battles he couldn't even get in on five years ago.

What changed? The Zags have become a perennial Top 25 team, appear routinely on national television and have elevated their status from strong mid-major to model program.

"It's a heck of a lot harder to stay at that level than when you make that first initial run," Few said. "That was all fun and games. ... There's no question we're doing better now and again it goes more with TV."

That's the next challenge for Larranaga and others.

Now that the Missouri Valley schools and George Mason have proven they can win in a high-profile, high-pressure environment, more players are willing to give them a chance. The question is whether they can win the big summer battles.

"If you're going up against a Big Ten or ACC school, you're still going to play second fiddle," Weber said. "There's no doubt our run at SIU helped and you have a chance to get maybe someone from the next group, but it's tough at that level."
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Old 07-16-2006, 05:44 AM   #2
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Midmajors aren't any more or less successful than they've more or less ever been, and not even a fluke Final Four run that's unlikely to be repeated in decades will change that.
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Old 07-23-2006, 02:51 PM   #3
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I agree with Game on this one. Small schools have a shot every year, that's why they shell out the money for D-1 sports. George Mason doesn't believe it can rival Texas or Ohio State in atheltic achievement, they just want to get a moment in the spotlight. With 400+ teams it's a guarantee that someone is going to come out of nowhere and win a big game or two.
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Old 07-23-2006, 04:33 PM   #4
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The age-limit is going to make another George Mason very unlikely.
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Old 07-23-2006, 11:01 PM   #5
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Every year, but especially this past season with GM making the Final Four, you hear these reactionary stories about parity in college basketball. What's funny is, there's probably less parity than ever before. The BCS conferences have homogenized college basketball so much. Even moreso with Conference USA now a midmajor program. Its predecessor, the Metro conference, wasn't part of the old money elite, like the Big Ten, ACC, etc. Yet DePaul, Marquette, Louisville...they could all compete with the big boys on a national level.

National championships and Final Four bids used to be won from outside the big-time conferences semi-regularly. But the Metro/CUSA's best programs, the SWC...the last decade or two, most recently with the Big East's expansion, has condensed college basketball a great deal. Parity isn't quite at death's door, but it's entering the neighborhood.

Sure, there's quality basketball played elsewhere. Not trying to claim otherwise.

Like my fellow Sox fan said, the age limit is going to kill the notion of parity just a little bit more. But even during the...let's call it the "Garnett-through-Howard Era" was still the power conferences, and mostly the elite programs, in the Final Four. Florida v. UCLA, UNC v. Illinois, UConn v. Georgia Tech, Syracuse v. Kansas, Maryland v. Indiana, Duke v. Arizona...etc, etc. With the possible exception of Utah in 1998, and even they were a strong program for quite some time before making the title game, every single title game participant of the Garnett Era (already shortened the title) was either a historically elite program, or a new-school power.

"Parity" does not exist until the MVC conference teams, the GMU's, the little guys of the world can legitimately hope to compete for championships. Hell, even Gonzaga hasn't yet made a Final Four.

And they cannot. And they never will, barring a massive restructuring of the college basketball world. I'm talking meteors hitting the dinosaurs here.

One fluke Final Four run from a team that shouldn't have even received a tourney bid doesn't change that.
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