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NCAA Tournament Preview East Region - First Round (9) Villanova vs. (8) George Mason

Friday, March 18 – 2:10 PM ET

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Two NCAA Tournament Cinderellas, two schools who captured the heart of a nation and helped make the Big Dance the celebrated sports showcase it is, now meet in the very event they’ve lifted to a place of prominence.

George Mason will play Villanova in a first round game on Friday at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. George Mason was 16-2 in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) to earn the regular season championship, but lost in the semifinals of the CAA Tournament to Virginia Commonwealth on March 6 to end a 16-game winning streak. Villanova was 9-9 in the Big East this season, but the Wildcats were upset by the South Florida Bulls in the tournament’s opening round on March 8.

The Patriots of George Mason are making their sixth appearance in the NCAA tournament, all but one under coach Jim Larrnaga, now in his 14th season. George Mason is led by senior guard Cam Long with 15.3 points, junior forward Ryan Pearson with 14.4 points and 6.8 rebounds, and sophomore forward Luke Hancock with 10.6 points per game.

The folks from Fairfax, Virginia, have an all-time tourney record of 4-5, but oh, what a sweet “4” the GMU crew claims as its own. In 2006 the Patriots put on their glass slipper and reached the grandest ball of them all, the Final Four, before losing in the national semifinals to eventual champion Florida, 73-58. The mid-major dash to the pinnacle of college basketball gave hope to hundreds of teams that they, too, could hit the big time. Sure enough, Butler carried the mid-major banner just four years later, doing George Mason one step better and reaching the national championship game before falling to Duke by one basket. Yes, it was Butler that made the bold run through the brackets last year, but without George Mason’s 2006 storyline, it’s hard to say if Butler would have done what it did. Some plucky Patriots paved the path four years before.

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Villanova is making its 32nd appearance in the NCAA tournament and has a 49-31 record all-time. This is the Wildcats’ seventh appearance under coach Jay Wright, now in his ninth season. Wright has taken Villanova to the Final Four once – two years ago to be specific – when it lost to eventual champion North Carolina in the semifinals. Last year, the second-seeded Wildcats were upset by 10th-seeded Saint Mary’s in the second round, an ugly loss that marked the culmination of a late-season downward spiral akin to what VU is undergoing right now. These recent March woes (following the ’09 Final Four run) stand in marked contrast to the moment that put Villanova – the school and the basketball program – on the map. A good 21 years before George Mason did its thing, Villanova (like North Carolina State in 1983) pioneered the way of the little guy, winning the national championship in 1985 under coach Rollie Massimino when it beat John Thompson’s Georgetown Hoyas in one of the NCAA Tournament’s most memorable upsets.

The Wildcats average 72.7 points per game, shooting 44 percent from the field. They are led in scoring by a trio of guards, senior Corey Fisher with 15.4 points per game, senior Corey Stokes with 15, and sophomore Maalik Wayns with 14 a night. All three average better than 40 percent shooting from the field. Senior forward Antonio Pena averages 9.8 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. Fisher averages 4.8, and Wayns averages 4.5 assists per game. Those numbers are all well and good, but if Villanova doesn’t gain something called leadership, its 5-10 record in its last 15 games will become 5-11 in its last 16 outings. The Wildcats surprised America in 1985 by winning six games and taking home a national title. They’d surprise the country once again if they merely managed to knock off George Mason in 2011.

By Matt Zemek
DFN Sports Senior Staff Writer
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