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March 4, 2008

Larranaga knows secrets to success

To 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."

The following are teams outside the "Big Six" conferences that have made the Sweet 16 over the past five seasons:
Butler200312Sweet 16Todd Lickliter
Marquette20033Final FourTom Crean
St. Joseph's20041Elite EightPhil Martelli
Nevada200410Sweet 16Trent Johnson
UAB20049Sweet 16Mike Anderson
Xavier20047Elite EightThad Matta
Louisville20054Final Four Rick Pitino
Utah20056Sweet 16 Ray Giacoletti
UW-Milwaukee200512Sweet 16 Bruce Pearl
Bradley200613Sweet 16Jim Les
George Mason200611Final Four Jim Larranaga
Gonzaga20063Sweet 16Mark Few
Memphis20061 Elite Eight John Calipari
Wichita State20067Sweet 16 Mark Turgeon
Butler20075Sweet 16Todd Lickliter
Memphis20072Elite Eight John Calipari
Southern Illinois2007 4 Sweet 16 Chris Lowery
UNLV2007 7 Sweet 16Lon Kruger
So who are some potential double-digit seeds outside the Big Six conferences with the potential to make it through the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament? Let's take a look.

  • South Alabama: The Jaguars rank 33rd nationally in field-goal percentage and 57th in field-goal percentage defense. Not only is that a nice balance, but they have balance in the lineup, with four players averaging double figures in scoring. They have a three-guard starting lineup that includes two seniors, and their non-conference schedule included the likes of road games against Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, the Anaheim Classic tournament, and a home victory over Mississippi State. They haven't lost a game by more than six points all season.

  • Illinois State: The Redbirds rank 78th nationally in field-goal percentage and 34th in field-goal percentage defense. Like South Alabama, Illinois State starts three guards - two of whom are seniors. They start three seniors altogether. They played at Indiana and at Kent State in the non-conference schedule, and they beat Cincinnati at home and knocked off Wright State.

  • Davidson: Two full-time starters, including the point guard, and one part-time starter are seniors. No one scheduled as aggressively in the non-conference portion of their schedule as the Wildcats, who played North Carolina, Duke, NC State and UCLA. They do have a clear-cut star in sophomore shooting guard Stephen Curry, but he knows how to get his own shot so taking him out of a game is not an easy task. He averaged 22 points against the aforementioned four opponents.

  • Oral Roberts: The Golden Eagles have four seniors who've started every game this season. They also have five players who average at least 9.0 points, three of whom are guards. They played non-conference road games against Texas A&M, Texas and Arkansas. Their shooting is a little suspect (No. 173 nationally), but they're solid defensively (29th in field-goal percentage defense).

    Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at bmcclellan@rivals.com.

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