Due to traveling requirements, we're running a bit tight on time. However, I had an opportunity to shoot an email with some questions to one of the most respectable George Mason fans I know. Granted, I don't know that many GMU fans, but that's besides the point.
I started following Alan on Twitter about a year ago now. He interacted with Defiantly Dutch and announced himself as an Orioles fan, so I decided to follow him as well. A current graduate student at Mason, he was kind enough to suffer the questions of an Old Dominion fan. Everyone has a story to tell, and below is part of Alan's.
You would be doing yourself a favor by following him on Twitter at @MasonFanatic.
1. How long have you been a George Mason basketball fan? I'm aware that you followed Maryland before you became a Patriots fan; what do you like about "mid-major" basketball rather than the power conferences?
The Final Four run came at a very interesting time in my life, occurring during the spring of my senior year of high school. Mason was already on my short list of schools to consider, and this choice was solidified by finances, geography, and a really good match between the school's academic programs and the field in which I was interested. However, one of my remaining concerns was the lack of any major, successful sports programs. Virginia Tech and it's football team beckoned. Well, the Patriots sure set out to show me how wrong I was about them! Mason ended up being the best match for other reasons, but the Final Four didn't hurt, either.
Mid-major basketball seems to offer infinitely more variety and drama than the major conferences, where there is little or no suspense about NCAA tournament berths or sustained success year to year. The attraction of an 'underdog' comes in many forms, and I have always liked it when underdogs can prove the established sports order wrong, whether it's the Arizona Diamondbacks over the Yankees in the World Series, or Boise State over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, or a CAA team in the Final Four. I like seeing players who genuinely enjoy the game and the moment triumph over coddled, money-focused 'stars.'
2. When you think of the Final Four run, what's the first and/or lasting image that comes to mind?
There are a lot. Most of all, I remember Lamar Butler's infectious smiles throughout the tournament and the sense that the entire team was playing with house money and just having fun, however long it might last. They had nothing to loose. And I can still see the wild celebration after UCONN finally succumbed in overtime: Coach L jumping up and down, waving the net over his head and whistling his famous whistle. Lamar Butler and Tony Skinn standing on the scorer's table, with Skinn waving four fingers in the air and pointing endlessly to the name on the front of his jersey. The 'someone just killed my puppy' look on the faces of the UCONN players. All of it. It still brings tears to my eyes. And every time I see the Final Four banner at the Patriot Center, I still smile, and think to myself "that shouldn't be there, and yet it is."
3. Other than the Final Four run in 2006, what are some of your favorite memories of GMU basketball?
There are four key memories that stand out for me, when counting games that I attended. The order is debatable.
1) My road trip to the 2011 NCAA tournament in Cleveland and our come-back win over Villanova, avenging our last-second loss to the then sixth-ranked Wildcats in an early season tournament the year previously.
2) Our 2008 CAA tournament championship victory over William and Mary and the ensuing court-rush bedlam.
3) Our blowout victory over JMU in Harrisonburg in 2008, after a week of vicious Facebook smack talk. Dre Smith broke an NCAA record (which still stands) by hitting 10 out of 10 three point attempts, and the JMU faithful emptied out with eight minutes to play, leaving behind 200+ screaming Mason fans' voices to fill the Convo.
4) Beating VCU at the Siegel Center for the very first time this past February, in dominant fashion, on national television, in front of Joe Lunardi, in possibly Mason's most complete game of the year. VCU fans cleared out by the thousands, starting with over ten minutes to play, and by the five minute mark, you could easily read their V-C-U R-A-M-S (empty) seat color pattern.
4. What was it like to hear Coach L left the program last spring, followed by the hire of a high-profile guy in Coach Hewitt?
It was a whirlwind of emotions, with unwarranted rage aimed in all directions, and a lot of doubt about which rumors were the truth. Larranaga, as well as every key member of the university administration, was demonized at some point during the process. I'm actually surprised there wasn't a riot down at the AD offices. The hiring of Hewitt completely blind-sided us. I don't think anyone expected us to bring in a coach with his kind of reputation and experience. We were hoping for a young, up and comer like Shaka Smart or Pat Skerry, but dreading that we'd end up a re-tread like Pat Kennedy or Benny Moss. Hiring a big name didn't seem like a priority to the university, and gambling on an unproved
Then boom! I saw the headlines. Paul Hewitt. Wait. What. WHAT? That Paul Hewitt? Why on earth would Hewitt want to coach in the CAA, anyway? He couldn't be desperate for a job, not with GT still paying him for the next 5 years, so he must have actually wanted the job. It blew my mind. Was he using us as a one-year stepping stone to get back into the big leagues? There were many more questions than answers. I'd always liked Paul Hewitt and used to follow Georgia Tech closely when I was more of an ACC guy, but I was definitely concerned about the manner and reasons for his departure from GT.
A lot of my concerns about the entire process were eased after the athletic department scheduled events for the Patriot Platoon (student section), first for us to talk to Athletic Director Tom O'Connor, and then, after the hiring, for O'Connor to introduce us to Hewitt and his assistants. I can't express how much it meant to talk to them in person. It calmed a lot of nerves, and allowed most of us to talk a cautious wait-and-see approach. Hewitt can't fairly be judged until this season is over, or even until the next two or three seasons are over. But right now, I would have to say my gut feeling is that Mason isn't going anywhere except up.
5. Coming in to Saturday's game against Old Dominion, the Patriots have a record of 18-6 (10-2 in conference). How would the presence of Luke Hancock made this team and its record different? Would Hancock and his abilities mesh well with Hewitt's coaching philosophy?
This has been analyzed endlessly by Mason fans, to the point where the dead horse has been beaten into spare atoms, but I'll throw out a few thoughts. First, we wouldn't have recruited Erik Copes, and he's made key plays for us in 2 or 3 games this year, despite battling a neck injury since a hard fall in the Drexel game (Sorry, ODU fans, he should be 100% for Saturday's game), so we can't treat Hancock's departure as only a negative. Second, we may have lost more than we were willing to admit when Cam Long and Isaiah Tate graduated. Third, scoffing Georgia Tech fans have said that Hewitt absolutely has to have a big point guard (Jarret Jack) or his system doesn't work, and at 6'5" Hancock would have provided that. But what else would Hancock have provided, besides checking a box? Certainly, from a positive standpoint, our turnover woes would be lessened by a more experienced backcourt ball handler. On the negative side, there were big concerns last year about Hancock's perimeter defense, and we've gotten burned by a hot three point shooter a number of times as it is.
There's really only one game that I think Hancock alone would have made a win-or-lose difference, and that was the FIU loss. We simply couldn't get the ball up the floor. But if we won that game, we likely would have lost to Virginia Tech, and then still gotten the same cupcake consolation games. If so, our record would be the same, albeit with a slightly better SOS.
Hancock was very mature and composed, and a true coach's player, so I think he and Hewitt would have meshed well. It's a shame Luke apparently thought otherwise. We have some significant maturity and composure problems as a team, and Hancock seemed to be asserting himself as the leader late last season, even over outgoing senior Cam Long. It's all hypothetical, though, and there's no way to know what influence he did or didn't have over particular players. One player doesn't make up for the tremendous inexperience that would have surrounded him in the backcourt, either. We have Copes, the shot blocking sensation, and we have two promising point guards in sophomore Bryon Allen and freshman Corey Edwards, and so we move on with the players we have. Mason will certainly be better off for the future by having been able to give our freshmen and sophomores so many minutes.
6. What are some of your favorite moments GMU vs ODU games?
For whatever reason, Mason/ODU games haven't produced a lot of moments that stand out in my mind. Every year like clockwork, we've blown you out up here, and we've found a way to lose down there. So I guess my favorite moment would be the game we played last month, and how complete and mature an effort our players put in to win in a place that even the 2006 and 2011 teams couldn't win. If we could capture that game-long focus and re-use it the rest of the season, Mason would be almost unbeatable. My least favorite moment would have to be having a flight delayed and missing almost the entire first half of the ODU @ Mason game in January 2010 as a result (When I arrived, Mason was up by one, and we won by 17, so I'd like a little credit, haha).