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Get inside March Madness with SI.com's Luke Winn in the Tourney Blog, a daily journal of college basketball commentary, on-site reporting and reader-driven discussions.
3/31/2006 07:37:00 PM

Mason Madness

Mason Mania
Luke Winn/SI

INDIANAPOLIS -- The market for Final Four tickets here may not be sizzling. But a $15 green T-shirt that says "George Mason Basketball" on the front -- that's a hot commodity. Vendor Mike McCutcheon (seen above, at left) was camped behind a table outside the Ram Restaurant & Brewery on South Illinois Street on Friday, sitting behind an ever-shrinking stack of Mason tees, taking cash from just as many unaffiliated, swept-up-in-the-Cinderella moment fans as he was from Patriots faithful. "We made 500 of these things," McCutcheon said, "and they've sold out in less than eight hours. I should've made more."

This is what happens when a mid-major crashes the Final Four: It may not help the scalpers or CBS' ratings, but it gives every ticket-holding fan without a team a lovable underdog to adopt. Thousands upon thousands of new Mason fans are jumping on the bandwagon, and a school that, earlier in the season, had little to offer in terms of basketball merchandise has watched its green-and-yellow goods become the hottest clothing trend in Indy. When coach Jim Larranaga held court in the Mason locker room on Friday, he joked to reporters, "The merchandising of the George Mason gear is selling 800 percent higher than any others. Does anybody know how I can get a piece of that?"

Larranaga may not be getting a direct cut of the cash, but his team's improbable Cinderella ride -- with wins over three of this decade's national champs, Michigan State, UNC and UConn -- has put Mason on the national map. GMU associate athletic director Andy Ruge told USA Today that the school expects its base of 1,200 season-ticket holders to grow by at least 50 percent for next season, and the campus bookstore has reportedly sold 30,000 t-shirts just this month. Players saw the Mason Madness first-hand this week with the merchandise rush on their campus, but, as junior guard Gabe Norwood said, "Coming [to Indianapolis] and seeing people that we've never seen before wearing George Mason t-shirts or hats, that's when it kind of hit us, and we realized how much of an impact we've had in this tournament."

The impact, Gabe, has been immense. Mason started the NCAA tournament as a mid-major question mark (Did the Colonial Athletic Association really need to have two teams in the dance?). After the first round the Patriots became a curiosity (That school from Fairfax, Va., that knocked off a suspect Michigan State squad). After the second round George Mason was a "buzz" team (Can you believe what they did?). After beating Wichita State the Pats were wonderful story (That cute Cinderella that would bow out to UConn). After shocking the Huskies, Mason Mania officially became a national sensation (My team's knocked out and my bracket's jacked, but I'm a Pats fan now).

George Mason went from a squad that you wouldn't recognize, to a team that practiced in front of thousands on Thursday (see picture below) and has been getting mobbed by autograph hounds in Indy. "Everywhere we go, people are asking for signatures," said sophomore Folarin Campbell, one of the Patriots' three starting guards. "I can honestly say, I feel like a celebrity right now."

Mason Mania
Luke Winn/SI

Even the shady opportunists -- eBay autograph hawks -- are latching on to Mason, lurking in and around the team hotel to collect sets of signatures on basketballs, Final Four programs, floor boards and more. Freshman forward Chris Fleming, a reserve who averages 4.9 minutes per game, laughed when he saw a photo of his John Hancock on the auction site. "We never expected to see stuff of ours selling on eBay," Fleming said. "I don't really even have a 'signature' -- I just kind of scribbled something down. It's funny seeing that people actually want to buy that."

Not that Fleming minds the higher profile. He said he could remember back to when he was a high-schooler in Manassas, Va., who had committed to the Pats, and his dad drove up to campus to buy Mason clothing for the family. "We could get Mason shirts, but nothing about basketball," Fleming said. Even this season, the only jerseys available were Jai Lewis tops that Fleming said "were three sizes too small, and looked like they were from the 1980s." But now, with merchandise of all kinds in high demand, there's plenty of Final Four gear and the lines at the student bookstore at GMU this week stretched out of the doors. "It's really incredible what's happening," Fleming said. "I'm having the time of my life."

Everyone at Mason, from the bench players to stars like Lamar Butler, Lewis and Campbell, is living the Little Guy's dream. And their loose, fun-loving demeanor -- which is carried down from the affable Larranaga -- has made it easy for the fans and the media to climb on board. "These kids have done a wonderful job of handling the moment, and their attitudes and approach to the game have captured the hearts of a lot of Americans," said Larranaga. "I think we all like the underdog. We all like the overachiever. We kind of see ourselves that way, and our players are embracing that."

Mason Madness has swept the souvenir stands. It has spread from tourney sites in Dayton, Ohio, to Washington D.C., to Indy, to living rooms all across the country via TV. It overwhelmed the Big Ten (Michigan State), the ACC (North Carolina), the Missouri Valley (Wichita State) and the Big East (UConn), and there's enough left in this craze to overtake Florida and the SEC. The Patriots may be 600 miles from home, but they won't suffer from lack of support.
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3/31/2006 05:08:00 PM

The Street Market In Indy

Tyrus Thomas
Want to get inside the RCA Dome on Saturday? You might not have to shell out too much cash.
AP

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Final Four has long been a primo event for ticket scalpers, but as one pro street-seller confided in me Friday afternoon, "I'll be honest with you, this year sucks."

Last season's Final Four in St. Louis was a scalpers' dream, with Illinois and UNC squaring off in the title game -- and the Illini in particular bringing hordes of orange-clad fans to the Edward Jones Dome. Two other Midwestern semifinalists, Michigan State and Louisville, further inflated the market, and "books" of tickets -- sets of seats for Saturday's semifinals and Monday's final -- were fetching four-figure sums.

From cruising the five-block radius surrounding the 47,000-seat RCA Dome today, I can confidently report that 1) tickets are not difficult to obtain, and 2) they aren't selling for exorbitant sums. Florida, LSU, UCLA and George Mason just don't have enough star power to jack up the prices. Face value for a "book" (again, entry to both Saturday and Monday) this year is $170; I watched two LSU fans buy decent, lower-level books from a non-scalper for $400 apiece (they may have overpaid), and met a referee who was discreetly trying to hawk upper-level books for $300 and having very little luck. And this was just Friday, when prices are generally higher; in the lead-up to game time tomorrow one might be able to gain entry for $250 or less.

A quick recap of three conversations I had with scalpers:

Scalper No. 1, near the corner of Capitol Ave and W. Washington Street, one block from the RCA Dome:

Me: How much for two lowers?
No. 1: Lemme check. (Calls "head man" on cell phone, engages in hushed conversation.) He says nickels.
Me: So $500 apiece?
No. 1: That's what nickels are.
Me: I haven't seen anything that high. Are you putting me next to Jay-Z or something?
No. 1: Nickels, man. These are 100s. Corners (of the arena). You got the cash on you now?
Me: No way. ... I'm not paying you that much.
No. 1: (Looking down and seeing my media credential, which I wasn't trying to hide). Man, you with the press? You trying to get me in trouble or something? We're done.

Scalper No. 2, near corner of W. Washington and S. Illinois St.:

Me: You having a good day? I'm not looking to buy anything, I'm just trying to get an idea of the market.
No. 2: I'll be honest with you, this year sucks. I mean, George Mason, they're nice, but do they really have a following? Like 4,000 people go to their regular games. I don't see that many UCLA people. And Florida and LSU are OK, but dude, they ain't no Illinois and North Carolina. Last year was nice.
Me: So these guys on the corner are having a rough time.
No. 2: Oh yeah. It's weak right now. Honestly, if you wait 'til tomorrow it's gonna get even cheaper. Ain't a single team from around here, and getting rid of the uppers is gettin' real hard.

Scalpers Nos. 3 and 4/Referee/Journalist Confrontation, on S. Illinois St.:

Me, to discreet ref in sunglasses: Hey, you selling tickets?
Ref: I've got all these 300-level-----
No. 3, who was already next to the ref, interrupting: You can talk to him when we're done talking to him.
Me: O.K., dude, calm down.
No. 4, to ref: So what do you want for all six?
Ref: Like I said, $300 a book. I'm just trying to pay for my trip.
No. 3: $300 is a joke. You're never going to get that for those things. (They walk away in unison, trying to act disgusted).
Me, to their backs: Can I talk to him now?
Ref, to me: Those guys want to flip these things and make money. I'm just trying to pay for my flight and hotel and stuff.
Me: You think you can get $300 for those today?
Ref: Not looking good right now. I need to find some people who aren't scalpers. And I need to get rid of these things so I can start having some fun.

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3/31/2006 10:03:00 AM

Diary From Day One

Has this really been the "best tournament ever," as CBS' Jim Nantz called it on Thursday night -- or is that just the superlative that gets bandied about on an annual basis? The network knows it won't set any ratings records -- or even come close to setting them -- with the Final Four teams here in Indy: Two SEC schools from small markets (LSU and Florida), one D.C. metro-area Cinderella (George Mason), and a somewhat unsexy, albeit big-city West Coast rep (UCLA). Consider the bracket from which that quartet emerged, however, and Nantz dropping the B.T.E. label didn't register a spike on my cheese-meter. I actually found myself nodding in silent agreement. I'm too young -- only 25 -- to truly know, but it's the best one I've seen (and blogged). I mean, eight first-round upsets? Buzzer-beaters galore? Three (or four, if you count Gonzaga) mid-majors in the Sweet 16? Mid-freakin-Mason in the Final Four -- joined by a grand total of zero No. 1 seeds?

Lack of a juggernaut (no UConn, no Duke, no 'Nova, no Memphis) in the final weekend does not translate into lack of intrigue. Unpredictability equals quality. And while there are still three games remaining that will have a Big Baby-sized bearing on this dance's place in history, B.T.E is not outside the realm of possibility.

The event I took Nantz's line from was the 2006 Salute Presentation, which took place last evening at Indianapolis' Murat Theater. It's not a media affair -- more of a "gala" for the teams and NCAA folks -- and I was a ticket-buying (or mooching, from SI) attendee. The dress code is formal, and the well-heeled audience gets an opportunity to gauge the relative sartorial skills of the teams, who after watching CBS-packaged video salutes to their tournament successes, are paraded on stage to receive commemorative watches. (The goods were distributed by selection committee chair Craig Littlepage and NCAA president Myles Brand, a rock-solid indication that no gift-rules violations were occurring.)

After a whole season of Power Rankings, I'll use any excuse to make a list in the postseason -- so this is how the teams stood in terms of most- to least-GQ: 1. LSU (the whole squad dressed to the nines). 2. George Mason (all in suits, with Jai Lewis leading the way in baggy browns). 3. Florida (khakis-and-salmon-shirts must be the thing in Gainesville). 4. UCLA (not uniformly underdressed, but there were plenty of untucked Bruins, as you'll see in the second picture below). It should be noted that the worst-dressed team at this thing in 2005 -- Louisville -- was the first to lose.

Florida
Luke Winn/SI


UCLA
Luke Winn/SI

Four individual awards must be dished:

1. Best-Dressed, No Question About It: LSU's Darrel Mitchell. With a brown pinstriped suit, monogrammed cufflinks and a well-chosen, golden-hued tie, the Tigers' Silent Assassin outclassed all of his peers. (And I apologize for not getting a picture.)

2. Bold Enough To Wear A Bow Tie:
Florida's Joakim Noah (in top picture, at right), who with his ponytail pulled back tight, rocked a bow tie, a half-tucked-in white dress shirt and gray slacks with no belt. Strange getup, but I'll applaud him for his originality.

3. There's A Large Piece Of Jewelry On A Long Chain Around My Neck, But I've Tucked It Inside My White Long-Sleeve Shirt Out Of Respect For The Attendees:
UCLA's Arron Afflalo. It was rather noticeable.

4. Notoriously Underdressed Sportswriter
(who's been ripped on in the Blog's comments section for his untucked-ness) Breaks Out A Blazer: Myself. No selfie photo, but I promise it happened.

More to come in the next hour ...
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3/31/2006 10:01:00 AM

The Plot Only Gets Better, Folks

George Mason's Jim Larranaga has assumed the role of lovable skipper of America's adopted team, George Mason, and as if he needed any more inspiration than being the first coach to lead a mid-major in the Final Four since 1979 ... well, he's getting it on Saturday. Landing at the Indianapolis airport at 2 p.m. -- four hours before tipoff -- from a flight plan that began in Italy, will be Larranaga's son Jay, who played for Jim at Bowling Green and now plays professionally in Europe. Jay will have his family in tow, including infant son James Joseph III -- whom grandpa Jim has yet to meet. On the day "J.J." was born, the Pats beat Virginia Commonwealth and Jay called to say that J.J. had "taken care of business." So, they're flying him in from Europe and hoping he takes care of business a second time -- against Florida.

Jim's eyes teared up on Thursday night as he told the Salute Presentation crowd of his expected visitors, and just after that, sitting out in the audience, LSU guard Garrett Temple turned to coach John Brady and said, "With a story like that, I'm glad we're not playing them on Saturday."

For the full story the Larranagas, check the feature (written by Grant Wahl and reported by Julia Morrill) on the Patriots in this week's SI. Here, an excerpt detailing of Jay's intercontinental role -- as an unofficial scout -- in Mason's Final Four run:

Last Saturday night, only two hours after nodding off during an interview with SI, an exhausted Larranaga was seated at a computer in the lobby of the Crystal Gateway Marriott in Arlington, Va., printing out stat sheets in preparation for the UConn game. They came courtesy of his sons, 31-year-old Jay and 25-year-old Jon, who both played for Larranaga in college and serve as a hoops support system for their pops, even though Jay is now a professional player in Italy and Jon works in Washington, D.C. During the North Carolina game, Jon was in the stands at the University of Dayton Arena speaking constantly on his cellphone with a frantic Jay, who was watching the Internet broadcast in Naples and pleading (fruitlessly) for his brother to run down to the bench and pass along instructions to their dad. (When they run the screen-and-roll, don't have the guys flash high!) After that upset Jim and Jon walked out to a quiet corner of the arena, and the three Larranaga men shared a tearful moment on the phone.
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3/31/2006 10:00:00 AM

Diary From Day One (continued)

Nantz and Manning
Luke Winn/SI

- CBS Jim Nantz trotted out a "special surprise" for the "kids" -- a visit from Indianapolis Colts QB Peyton Manning, who gave a nice "cherish the moment" speech and then met with a player from each team. Naturally, Glen Davis was LSU's handshake-rep, and when Nantz said, "he used to play tailback," Manning responded, "I could use him next year. I just lost mine."

After Big Baby had left the stage, Nantz told the crowd, "Big Baby says he was the best tailback ever out of Baton Rouge." And from his seat, Davis yelled back, "Yessuh!"

- Florida's Lee Humphrey was geeked -- absolutely geeked -- to meet Manning, hustling up to the stage with a star-struck grin on his face. "I don't know if Peyton knows this, but he signed a jersey for me in the fifth grade," Humphrey said of his boyhood hero. Mason's Jai Lewis, meanwhile, was offered a spot on the Colts (by Nantz, not Manning) as a tight end, a la Antonio Gates from former Cinderella Kent State. "I'll take him," Manning said.

Nantz and Manning
Luke Winn/SI
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