George Mason paved the way for Butler, VCU

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.”