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March 4, 2008To hear Jim Larranaga tell it, his 2006 George Mason team was more Goliath than David.
"One thing that helped us tremendously was the media saying we didn't have a chance, that we didn't belong," Larranaga said. "But I told our guys, 'Let me tell you how good I think we are. Who are the top teams in the country defensively? Well, we're right there in the top 10. Offensively we're 15th. How many teams rank that high in both of those categories?'
"You can check the 2006 NCAA statistics. It was only us and Florida."
You're mostly correct, Coach. The Patriots and the Gators did, in fact, rank in the top 25 nationally in field-goal percentage and field-goal percentage defense. They were two of only three teams to do so. The other was Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, conspicuous by its absence from the Final Four.
Why conspicuous? Because you know by now George Mason and Florida did make the Final Four, and the Gators claimed the first of consecutive national championships. Billy Donovan's team did it as a No. 3 seed. Larranaga's team was a No. 11 after earning a rare at-large bid out of the Colonial Athletic Association.
The Patriots made the most of it. After a 23-7 season, GMU knocked off Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and Connecticut to advance to the national semifinals in Indianapolis.
You can check the chart that accompanies this story. Only two other teams (Marquette and Louisville, both of whom made it out of Conference USA but are now in the Big East) have made the Final Four from outside the Big Six conferences in the past five years.
What are the key ingredients for a double-digit seed outside of a power conference to make a run in the NCAA Tournament? Larranaga and Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, who guided UW-Milwaukee to a Sweet 16 three years ago, reveal the secrets of a Cinderfella.
1. Balance. "You have to have balance in your offense and defense," Larranaga said. "For example, in 2006 we had five guys averaging double figures and we were 15th in the country in field-goal percentage offense. That's very efficient. And you have to be good defensively. We were 10th in the nation in field-goal percentage defense. We were good at both ends of the floor. When you get to that level, people can really take advantage and exploit any weaknesses. You can't be good on only one end of the floor."
2. Seniors. "Senior leadership is very important," Pearl said. Larranaga concurred. "You have to have guys who have tremendous confidence and enough experience to get the job done," the GMU coach said.
3. An aggressive non-conference schedule. "Look at what Butler and Southern Illinois have done; they've scheduled up," Pearl said. "We beat Purdue and Hawaii on the road that year. We lost at Kansas, lost at Wisconsin. We won some big road games and lost some, but we scheduled a lot of them against good competition. Schedule yourself up early in the season and give your kids confidence that you can compete with those guys."
4. Good guard play. "They're the ones who take the big shots and big free throws," Larranaga said. "If you're a very good interior team but weak at guard it will be very, very hard to get by the second round."
5. A loose attitude. "I think something that's very important for mid-majors is not to put a whole lot of pressure on yourself," Larranaga said. "Enjoy the opportunity and put all of the pressure on the higher seed and the bigger name. Keep your team relaxed. Let your opponent feel the stress."
6. No stars. "I think a guy like that gets all the attention," Larranaga said. "The teams you're playing are too good. They'll find a way to take him out of the game, especially if he's a big guy. He's not getting the ball. Teams will surround him."
Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.