George Mason back in the picture
A year ago this weekend, George Mason coach Jim Larranaga was entertaining a recruit and watching three talented teams from smaller conferences – Northern Iowa, Saint Mary’s and Butler – advance to the Sweet 16.
After Mason crashed the 2006 Final Four, it changed the game for mid-major dreamers. You could see it in the way those teams never appeared satisfied with springing just a single “upset.”
“Can another George Mason make the Final Four?” Larranaga said a year ago. “Yes, I think it’s possible. There are some very good teams.”
Butler would, indeed, do Mason one better, advancing to the NCAA championship game before losing at the buzzer to Duke.
Larranaga was happy to see it. What he said would really make him happy, though, was getting Mason back to March contender. He was tired of hearing about who would be that year’s George Mason.
“I want George Mason to be this year’s George Mason,” he said.
Well, here we go. The eighth-seeded Patriots beat Villanova 61-57 Friday to advance. They’ll likely play No. 1 overall seed Ohio State on Sunday in Cleveland, no light challenge. Yet this is a program whose Final Four run included victories over Michigan State, North Carolina and an outrageously talented Connecticut club.
If nothing else, Larranaga and his coaching staff won’t be afraid of the Buckeyes. George Mason is a dangerous club – 27-6 overall with reasonable size, plenty of experience and a lot of pride. Its ability to mount a comeback, then out-execute its Big East opponent down the stretch should tell anyone that this isn’t some gimmick upset special. Luke Hancock’s drive-create-space-and-step-back-for-a-‘3’ game-winner was a big-time play.
So Mason is back. Buckeyes beware.
Duke got one-time leading scorer Kyrie Irving back for its 87-45 blowout of Hampton. Irving, the freshman point guard sensation, was averaging 17.4 points per game when he hurt his toe in a Dec. 4 victory over Butler. He hadn’t played since but still was considered a likely top-three pick in June’s NBA draft.
Well, it was only Hampton, but Irving had 14 points, five rebounds and an assist in his return. So forget about rust. He was 4-of-8 from the field, including 2-for-2 from behind the arc. He looks as if he’s even put on at least five pounds of muscle, yet still is as quick as ever.
This development simply can’t be underplayed.
Duke was a No. 1 seed without its most talented player. Now it has him back. And he, presumably, will only continue to play into form over the next couple of weeks.
Whatever you thought of the NCAA tournament has to change. Duke just added another superstar since Selection Sunday.
Jury may be in
The blowout loss comes two days after UT athletic director Mike Hamilton, in an ill-timed yet telling radio interview, declared the jury still was out on whether Pearl would return for a seventh season in Knoxville.
Pearl’s program is ensnared in a NCAA major violation case, centering on Pearl lying to NCAA investigators when questioned about secondary recruiting violations. He’s already been banned from recruiting for one year, was suspended by the SEC for eight league games this season and is working without a contract.
He still faces additional sanctions and suspensions courtesy of the NCAA.
The situation was tough enough before Hamilton threw gasoline on it this week – a self-inflicted disaster that no one needed. Players love playing for Pearl and the hope among the coach’s supporters was that these particular players would rise up and reward him with another deep tournament run. A second weekend appearance couldn’t hurt, and perhaps it would be enough for the school to consider riding out sanctions with him.
No such luck.
“When you get beat 42-16 in a half of basketball [the second], we didn’t play with heart,” Pearl said.
“We basically just quit,” forward Tobias Harris said.
Pearl won’t quit. He wants to fight for his job, and after six seasons that is more than his right. He’s a talented guy, a colorful promoter and a likable coaching figure. He made men’s basketball actually matter at Tennessee, with a combination of winning teams and personality.
It makes the situation so bitter for Volunteers fans. He’s arguably the best thing to ever happen to the program, yet the circumstances make it difficult for him to return. Clearly either he or Hamilton need to go – and Hamilton doesn’t sound worried (considering he also hired Lane Kiffin, he probably should).
Pearl is the best long-term answer for Tennessee, yet college coaching is about momentum and situations and trust. Getting to the long-term is the question.
So if the jury is, indeed, still out on Pearl’s future, Friday’s 30-point drubbing wasn’t much of a closing argument.
One more on Pearl
If Pearl is gone and forced to serve some time in NCAA purgatory, expect him to go to ESPN; he then should become a hot coaching commodity. His mistake was serious yet correctable. A humbled Pearl is a major catch for a lot of schools.
Fab Five redux
The big off-court argument this week is between the Duke and Michigan programs of the early 1990s – mostly stemming from Wolverines guard Jalen Rose saying in a documentary that he thought at the time the Blue Devils only recruited a certain kind of African-American player. That led to a response by Duke’s Grant Hill in the editorial page of the New York Times.
Now Michigan and Duke will play Sunday, and the entire debate over “Uncle Toms” and the 1992 NCAA championship game and the class and race disparities between those old teams will be hashed and rehashed.
You can count on Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski to demand all questions be about the current players (reasonable request, but unlikely) and the current Michigan program to claim no side in the fight.
Really, it’s an argument between a bunch of guys in their late 30s and early 40s. Maybe they should just stage an old-timers game and settle it there.
Oakland coach Greg Kampe knew his shot at springing an upset was in trouble when Texas fell all the way to a No. 4 seed and wound up as the 13th-seeded Golden Grizzlies opponent. Sure enough, the Longhorns won 85-81.
Kampe said afterward that as good as he thought Texas was, the Longhorns are even better in person. And everyone should heed warning.
“We play everybody in the country,” Kampe said of Oakland’s tough non-conference schedule. “I know who is good, and I know who isn’t. And that Texas team is as good as anybody.
“Texas can win a national championship. They defend like unbelievable. … We’ve played those teams. And Ohio State and them, they’re right there neck and neck. And I think Ohio State is the No. 1 pick or seed in this tournament. We’ve played them both, and [Texas is] a great team.”
Arizona’s Derrick Williams last-second block on Memphis’ Wesley Witherspoon preserved the Wildcats’ 77-75 victory. It was an impressive defensive play, yet not better than Thursday’s effort by Morehead State’s Kenneth Faried.
Faried’s was truly clean; you’ll never convince a Memphis fan that Witherspoon wasn’t fouled while grabbing the offensive rebound or on the shot. Neither of which is Williams’ problem. A game-saver is a game-saver and better to be aggressive than allow the easy lay-in. Great play by Williams.