George Mason paved the way for Butler, VCU
FAIRFAX, Va. (AP) - George Mason's Jim Larranaga is the proud big brother. A regular Roger Bannister. The coach who paved the way for Virginia Commonwealth and Butler to make the Final Four.
And, when he answered the phone on Monday, he was the pitchman ready with the statistics to make the case that the Colonial Athletic Association should be a mid-major no more.
"If I asked you who were the two best conferences in the country on the East Coast, would we agree that it's the Big East and the ACC?'' Larranaga asked.
OK, sure. Most would agree.
"In the NCAA tournament,'' he continued, "which is really where you prove yourself on a neutral floor - you're not playing on someone's home court - what would the CAA's record be against the Big East and ACC over the last five years?''
The answer: 7-2. That's not a misprint. Since 2006, the CAA is 4-2 against the Big East and 3-0 against the Atlantic Coast Conference, the two behemoths that soak up nearly all of the college basketball hype to be found in the area.
So why aren't people subtracting "mid'' from the CAA's "mid-major'' status?
"Exactly,'' Larranaga answered. "That's what I want to know.''
Larranaga will forever be known as the coach who took the Patriots to the Final Four in 2006, a triumph for mid-major schools everywhere. When his team made the NCAAs this year, the players sported T-shirts proclaiming: "We ARE this year's GEORGE MASON.'' Since that didn't quite work out - the Patriots beat Villanova in their first game but lost to Ohio State in the next round - Larranaga is more than happy to live vicariously through Butler and conference compatriot VCU.
"I have some favorite mid-major teams,'' Larranaga said, "and two of them are in the Final Four.''
When Butler made the championship game a year ago, Larranaga made a congratulatory call to his good friend, Bulldogs athletic director Barry Collier. Collier quickly thanked Larranaga for helping Butler get there.
"I said, 'What are you thanking me for?''' Larranaga said. "He said, 'Until 2006, no one thought this could be done.' And now I think all mid-majors think this is a realistic goal for us to make it to the Final Four.
"I don't want to make it sound like I'm taking credit for any of this. I think like everybody else, you look for signs. And I think one of the signs for whether or not a mid-major can make it to the Final Four is when someone gets there. My son sent me an email and he said, 'I'm going to start calling your Roger Bannister.' I said, 'What is that all about?' He said, 'Until Roger Bannister ran a sub-4-minute mile, everybody said that it couldn't be done.' After he ran a sub-4-minute mile, it seemed like everybody in the country, in the world, can run a 4-minute mile.''
Mid-majors have now made the Final Four in three of the last six NCAA tournaments. That's not a bad batting average.
"I think that's kind of a psychological barrier that's been overcome,'' Larranaga said. "Then the next barrier is a mid-major to win the national championship.''
Larranaga points out that such a scenario wouldn't be possible in NCAA football, where VCU and Butler would have been relegated to ignorable bowl games instead of getting a chance to play for the title.
"But in basketball,'' he said, "we play it on the court.''