Ten years ago, George Mason made one of the most improbable runs to the Final Four in NCAA history. The crazy thing, though, is that the Patriots almost didn’t even make the tournament.
Indeed, they lost to UNC-Wilmington in the Colonial Athletic Association Championship but received an at-large bid from the selection committee.
“Honestly, we did (think we would make the tournament),” former George Mason standout Lamar Butler said on CBS Sports Radio’s The DA Show. “Coach (Larranaga) kept assuring us we would have a bid. We had a couple guys dealing with some serious injuries and he kept saying, ‘We’ll get in. We’ll get in.’ We played Michigan State the first game.”
George Mason won that game by 10, this after losing at Michigan State by just six points one season earlier. The Patriots then beat North Carolina, Wichita State and Connecticut to reach the Final Four in Indianapolis.
Butler said beating North Carolina gave George Mason the confidence boost it needed. The Patriots played the Tar Heels on the road two seasons earlier in December 2003. George Mason actually led 49-47 at halftime but lost 115-81. Still, North Carolina – with Sean May, Raymond Felton and Rashad McCants – would go on to win the national championship the very next season.
Then came George Mason’s run.
“If we could beat Carolina,” Butler said, “we could beat anybody in this tournament.”
Right before the season began, Larranaga told Butler, Jai Lewis and Tony Skinn that they would be the first class to ever make the NCAA Tournament at George Mason.
“We prepared like we was going not just to the tournament, but to make a deep run that year,” Butler said. “The focus, you could just see it in our team.”
The Patriots lost in the Final Four to eventual national champion Florida, 73-58, but Butler knows that run changed George Mason’s program forever.
“It definitely did,” he said. “Because now when you think George Mason, you think Final Four. Anytime you say that school, that’s the first thing (you think) about, that run we made. So we definitely changed it.”