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Florida Will Try to Ruin a Good Story

Even the Gators accept the fact that George Mason is most fans' sentimental favorite.

April 01, 2006|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS — Even seeing the logo displayed around the RCA Dome is so incongruous, it seems like a prop from a Hollywood movie about the Final Four, some piece of sentimental fiction.

"Mason Patriots" has taken its place alongside the cursive UCLA, Florida's toothy Gator and Louisiana State's Tiger.

George Mason is a victory over third-seeded Florida from playing for the NCAA championship Monday. Yes, it's improbable, but considerably less improbable than the upset of top-seeded Connecticut that got the Patriots here.

"Everybody's going to be cheering for George Mason," Florida swingman Corey Brewer said. "It's a great story. If I were a fan, I'd probably be cheering for them too."

The Patriots (27-7) will take their place on college basketball's biggest stage today against Florida (31-6) in a national semifinal, but guard Lamar Butler was like a mischievous boy Friday, peeking through the curtains at Coach Jim Larranaga's news conference with an incandescent smile on his face.

"I was looking at how big the room was, how many media people were here," Butler said. "I saw Coach 'L.' He was serious, answering questions, bobbing his head, and I was laughing, that was all."

A while earlier, Butler and his teammates stepped onto the court of the cavernous dome where about 43,000 will watch them play today as they try to pull yet another incalculably big upset.

"I've never even been inside a dome," Butler said. "I've played football in a basketball gym, but never basketball inside of a football arena."

Looking toward the basket for the first time in the capacious space, he momentarily lost his bearings.

"I think I shot an airball on my first shot," he said.

The 11th-seeded Patriots are the once-obscure team from a 29,000-student school in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C.

They earned their fare to Indianapolis, beating Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and Connecticut along the way.

"We don't consider them a Cinderella," Florida forward Adrian Moss said. "They beat some incredible teams.

"Those guys are good."

The George Mason players represent a Founding Father, playing for a school named for a Virginia statesman who helped write the U.S. Constitution.

Florida's players represent famous fathers.

Joakim ("Don't call me Joe") Noah, a gifted 6-11 sophomore NBA prospect, is the son of former French Open champion Yannick Noah.

Guard Taurean Green is the son of Sidney Green, the former Nevada Las Vegas star and NBA player who was an assistant coach at Indiana this season.

Center Al Horford is the son of former NBA player Tito Horford.

The George Mason players' fathers are dear to them, but not so well known.

Butler's father is a high school assistant coach and owns a sporting goods store. Beefy forward Jai Lewis' father is retired from the Army. Forward Will Thomas' father is a project manager for a bank.

"We're a bunch of no-name guys playing in the biggest sporting event in the world and loving it," Larranaga said.

"Did you see the movie, 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid?' Butch and Sundance were being chased by these detectives or what have you. They keep trying to lose them. They can't. They just keep asking themselves, 'Who are those guys?'

"I think basically that does represent George Mason University men's basketball team," he said. "Nobody knows us."

Until this season, George Mason had never won an NCAA tournament game, and now the Patriots are royalty, even if it's of Cinderella lineage.

Florida Coach Billy Donovan knows a little about underdog stories. He played for the 1987 Providence team that made the Final Four.

"Providence had gone [eight] years without going to the NCAA tournament," Donovan said. "All of a sudden it was just an incredible ride, getting to the Final Four."

The Patriots are enjoying their ride, but they are dead serious about winning.

"We didn't come here just to come to the Final Four, visit, take pictures," Butler said. "We came here to play the Florida Gators and win the game. That's the obstacle in front of us. We're ready for it."

Florida's players don't seem to doubt it.

"It's us against the world right now. Nobody wants us to win," Brewer said.

"I think we're definitely going to be the villain," Noah said. "[But] at the end of the day, like my teammate Adrian Moss says, there's 10 players out there, two buckets, and one ball. That's what it's all about, just playing basketball."

That, and gathering souvenirs from what Larranaga called an "absolutely fantastic magic carpet ride."

Butler stood up after his news conference and glanced back at the card on the table that identified him.

"Can I have my name tag?" he said.

"After the tournament is over," the moderator said.

After all, they still might need it Monday night.



How Florida, George Mason match up


GEORGE MASON: Ht; Wt; Stats; Pos; FLORIDA: Ht; Wt; Stats

Will Thomas: 6-7; 220; 7.3 rpg; F; Joakim Noah: 6-11; 227; 14.2 ppg

Jai Lewis: 6-7; 274; 13.7 ppg; F; Corey Brewer: 6-8; 185; 12.5 ppg

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