Pound for pound, the NCAA Tournament is the best event in all of sports – there's nothing even close to it. Super Bowls are more often than not pretty disappointing from a fan's perspective, there have been plently of lackluster baseball postseasons (although the last three seasons with the White Sox, Red Sox, and Cubs involved have been spectacular), the NBA and NHL Stanley Cup playoffs drag on for two months each, and don't even get me started on the BCS in college football. Meanwhile, the NCAA Tournament delivers improbable games and stories every single year in a one-and-done format. Does anyone ever remember there being a boring NCAA Tournament? It just doesn't happen. That's why I look forward to March Madness more than any other item on the sports calendar.
However, I've always thought the the Cinderella aspect of the NCAA Tournament was overblown. Sure, you'll see a number of low seeds upset superior teams on paper in the first round and a handful of midmajors get to the Sweet Sixteen on an annual basis. Every once in a while, teams like Gonzaga (who you can't call a midmajor anymore – they are the Duke of the non-BCS teams) or Kent State squeeze through to the Elite Eight. This is what makes picking brackets so fun. But when it comes down to where the stakes were highest – the Final Four – college basketball has been as stacked in favor of the powers-that-be as any pro or college sport.
History bears this out. Since the BCS was formed for the 1998 football season and until yesterday, only 2 teams, Marquette and Louisville, have made the Final Four that were not members of BCS conferences at the time of their runs and both of those teams are now BCS schools after having joined the Big East this season. At the same time, until yesterday, the last midmajor teams to make the Final Four were Indiana State and my sister's alma mater, Penn, in 1979. However, Indiana State had a guy named Larry Bird and came into the tournament that year as the #1-ranked team in the nation, so they were anything but a Cinderella story (in fact, they were an uber-Gonzaga). Penn was a bit of a surprise that year as a #9-seed, but the Quakers were well known as a historically significant program and their homecourt was and continues to be the Palestra, which is college basketball's equivalent of Wrigley Field (so the Ivy Leaguers weren't really outsiders). Considering this track record, it's interesting that the conventional wisdom is that college basketball gives everyone a chance to win it all while sports fans continually criticize the payroll disparities in baseball as being unfair to small-market teams even though the Florida Marlins have won two World Series championships in the last decade.
That's why I believe George Mason's breakthrough to the Final Four is the most shocking sports event that I've witnessed in my lifetime (I was alive for the Miracle on Ice in 1980, but since I was 2-years old at the time, I obviously don't remember that firsthand). Improbable comebacks, such as the Illinois eradication of a 15-point deficit to Arizona with 4 minutes to go in the game to make the Final Four last year (by the way, I popped in a tape of that game to watch that sequence again last night and I still can't believe how the Illini were able to do that. Even in the wake of the crazy White Sox postseason run, the 2005 Chicago Regional Final was personally the best sports moment of my life. Unless the Illini essentially do the same thing in a national championship game, the sea change from outright dejection to pure exhiliration in the span of a few minutes is something that probably will never be topped) or the Red Sox coming back from a 3 games-to-none hole against the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS are at one level, but the teams who make the comebacks usually are at least expected to be competitive (for instance, the Illini had only lost one game all year and were the #1 overall seed in 2005, while the Red Sox had the second-highest payroll in baseball next to the Yankees in 2004).
What George Mason has done is simply beyond comprehension to me. The road that they took to the Final Four went through Michigan State, North Carolina, and Connecticut – teams that have a combined 4 national championships and 8 Final Four appearances in the 7 years since the aforementioned beginning of the BCS. What's even more amazing to me is that this isn't a fluky team jacking up three-pointers and draining crazy shots, which is typically how most underdogs win a game or two in the NCAA Tournament. Anyone who watched the game yesterday noticed that George Mason controlled the tempo of the game by taking the time get a good pass into one of their two big men in the post on almost every possession, who would then either take it to the rim if there was a one-on-one matchup or kick it out for an open three-pointer or short jumpshot if there was a double-team. Simple in theory, yet not very many teams are able to do this consistently (for example, this is what I've been screaming at Illinois to do all season). At the same time, the Patriots played great man-to-man defense on UConn – even though there were few turnovers, the Huskies got few wide open looks and did a great job of boxing out to grab key rebounds.
The point is that George Mason doesn't look like a midmajor on the court. When Bucknell beat Kansas last year, the Bisons seriously looked like they were half the size of their Jayhawk counterparts. Same thing with Northwestern State compared to Iowa this year. The Patriots, on the other hand, play and look like a team from a power conference. They've already ousted the most athletically gifted team in country in UConn, a team with 3 starters from the 2005 Final Four in Michigan State, and the club with the best freshmen in the country in North Carolina. I'll be the first to admit to having a huge bias toward the major conferences as an alum of Big Ten and Big East schools. However, conferences don't win championships – teams win championships and GMU has proven that it is as great of a team as anyone out there. Maybe Cinderella does exist, after all.