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
”Exactly,” Larranaga answered. ”That’s what I want to
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
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
”But in basketball,” he said, ”we play it on the court.”