Notebook > Sports

The shoe fits at the big dance

Sports | Cinderella teams are supposed to exit in the Sweet 16. Tell that to George Mason University-perhaps the most unlikely Final Four team ever

Issue: "Who's laughing now?," April 8, 2006

This is not what college basketball meant by a Cinderella story. Cinderella teams are supposed to exit in the Sweet 16. Tell that to George Mason University-perhaps the most unlikely Final Four team ever. Like LSU in 1986, the Patriots of George Mason advanced through the big dance to the Final Four as an 11th seed.

But even then, LSU wasn't an unknown. Prior to this year's NCAA tournament, the George Mason basketball team was an unknown even on the campus of the Fairfax, Va., commuter school. "I didn't even know they had a basketball team," said Mar'esha Farrish, a Hopewell, Va., freshman, thinking back to last year before she enrolled.

College basketball fooled a lot more people than just George Mason students this year. In a massive contest run by ESPN, just .0001 percent of the participants correctly guessed a Final Four with Florida, George Mason, LSU, and UCLA. The difference this year, compared to previous, less eventful big dances? Basketball analysts point to parity.

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Every year, big schools with elite programs deal with attrition losses to the NBA when key players choose bucks over books and declare for the draft. It's less of a problem for smaller, lesser-known schools that are less likely to attract future NBA talent. George Mason's three leading scorers during the regular season were seniors. And the youth of the large schools makes them harder to handicap, meaning teams (like LSU this season) can catch lightning in a bottle if their talent gels at the right time. It means that nearly any team can be Cinderella, if the shoe fits.

Around the Horn

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