When the 2006 NCAA Tournament began, the ultimate result seemed like a foregone conclusion. It was going to be a six-round coronation event for the Connecticut Huskies. UConn had five players who were about to drafted into the NBA that June, an all-time record. Little did anyone guess that not only would UConn fall, but that they would not even reach the Final Four, and it would be one of the unlikeliest upsets in the history of an event noted for its shocking moments.
The 2006 George Mason basketball team had gone 23-7 and been a regular season co-champion of the Colonial Athletic Association. The CAA is traditionally a one-bid league and when George Mason lost in its conference tournament, it looked they would be NIT bound. But in a refreshing change of pace, the Selection Committee decided it was better to reward a good midmajor program with the 11-seed in the East, as opposed to a mediocre power conference team.
George Mason’s selection provoke an immediate outcry. CBS commentators Jim Nantz and Billy Packer were aggressive in questioning Committee chair Craig Littlepage for the rationale behind the choice. Nantz, an announcer I like and respect, was as rude and arrogant as I have ever seen him behave, acting as though no rational person could possibly agree with the Mason selection.
I’ve never been one who believes that what happens after the fact vindicates a Committee’s decisions, given those decisions should be based on a body of work already compiled, rather than being a glorified handicapping exercise. But for those who do believe such, George Mason did it in spectacular fashion.
George Mason, coached by current Miami boss Jim Larranaga had an all-conference guard in Jai Lewis leading the way, and a quality post player in Will Thomas. They beat Michigan State and North Carolina to open the tournament and reach the Sweet 16. Victories over Tom Izzo and Roy Williams went a long way to sticking a sock in the mouths of Nantz and Packer, who would now have to eat crow publicly when they broadcast George Mason’s games in the East Regional.
The 2006 NCAA Tournament was being shaken by upsets everywhere, and another midmajor, Wichita State, had advanced into the Sweet 16 opposite George Mason. In reality, the East Regionals in Washington D.C. looked even more of a coronation for UConn than they had prior to the tournament—the 2-3-4-5 seeds were already gone. UConn took care of Washington on Friday night and advanced to Sunday afternoon’s final.
George Mason had four players score in double figures against Wichita, with Thomas going for 10 points/10 rebound. The Shockers were ice cold from behind the arc, going 3-for-25, while Mason shot its threes more selectively and hit 8-of-16. The final was 63-55 and the stage was set for David vs. Goliath.
Mason hung around in the first half, but with a 43-34 UConn lead at the half, it seemed only a matter of time before the Huskies blew this one open. Only they didn’t. With Thomas again pounding the boards for 12 rebounds, George Mason won the battle of the glass. Between the 35-31 rebound edge for Mason and the fact UConn shot 47 percent from the floor, we can dismiss any notion that this game was just about one team getting hot while a favorite went cold at the wrong time.
Thomas also scored 19 points, while Lewis had 20 and Lamar Butler popped in 19. George Mason had a chance to win it at the end of regulation but couldn’t cash in. They had a chance to clinch it at the end of overtime, but nursing an 86-84 lead, missed free throws gave UConn a last chance. The Huskies opted to try and three rather than go hard to the hole and force another extra session, in which the favorite would presumably have the edge. The final shot missed and the improbable Final Four run was complete.
George Mason’s dream would die at the 2006 Final Four in Indianapolis, when they lost 73-57 to Florida, a team beginning a run of back-to-back national titles. But George Mason had given the country an unforgettable moment, and I don’t think there is any disrespect to Billy Donovan’s Florida program in saying that when most of us think of the 2006 NCAA Tournament, it’s George Mason that first comes to mind.