Duke faces last year's miracle team Saturday, George Mason, after the
Patriots went on a memorable run to the Final Four last year. Both
teams have changed a lot since last year, though, and any resemblance to their
predecessors is coincidental.
Duke of course you likely know about. Without all-time scorer and
cannon-armed J.J. Redick, and all-time shotblocker Shelden Williams, Duke is
incorporating four freshmen into the rotation, and dealing with significant
Mason has three important returnees from last year's team, Folarin Campbell
(6-4), Will Thomas (6-7) and John Vaughan (6-3), who have been absolutely
critical. Against Radford the other night, a game which Mason had to come
back to win 62-60, the trio scored every point except for a three to open the
game and a free throw with three seconds left.
Jordan Carter (6-0) and Jesus Urbina (6 -7), a native of Venezuela,
join the big three in the starting lineup.
You'd think this team is, like Duke, incorporating lots of freshmen and new
players, but that's not the case. There's only one freshman on the team,
and four sophomores, and one of those, Vaughn, is a redshirt sophomore. And Dre
Smith is a JUCO transfer, so he is new. But the team has nine
There is also a familiar face on the sidelines, as Scott Cherry returns to
Cameron. He made four trips there as a member of UNC's team, and while he
wasn't one of their greats, he was a solid player. Odds are he was a bit
torn about Mason's victory over UNC last spring on their unlikely march to the
Final Four, a problem we fortunately didn't share.
While Mason has struggled on the court to extend their remarkable success
last season, off the court is a different story. A lot of good things have
happened, but what's not clear and what may not be clear for some time is how
well they handle everything.
They've learned already that everyone is coming after them. But they've
also seen applications to the school spike 20%, and the school hired a
consulting firm which sees them as the second most marketable sports
product in Northern Virginia, behind the Redskins, and the way the Redskins are
playing, GMU might be moving up.
When they recruited Dre Smith last year, originally, the family had no clue
and thought Mason was too far away. After their big March, though, they
changed their minds and Dre signed.
And when they played Bucknell, guard Gabe Norwood told the Times that there
were signs in the local paper saying "break the glass slipper."
Coach Jim Larranaga has spent the summer doing things like catching the
ESPYs and coaching at Michael Jordan's Senior Flight School.
Attention, to sum it up, is there now, and that really changes things.
But what hasn't changed is that Mason is that Mason is an exceptionally
well-coached team and smartly administered program which managed to find enough
talent under the radar to put together last season's team and it's memorable
run. That's at the peak of the program, obviously - Final Fours are rare
for anyone outside of a few schools - but they did it and moreover they did it
the right way.
They've made an argument for respect, and as Larranaga, like Duke's
Krzyzewski, teaches his roster what they need to know to compete, they'll
improve and play near their whatever their potential is. They're not last
year's team, but the infrastructure which produced last year's team is still
there, and teams need to be wary.