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George Mason could do it again

3/12/2011

No team embodies the spirit of the Giant Killers philosophy better than the 2006 George Mason Patriots, who rose from 11th-seed obscurity to make it to the Final Four. Back then, GMU met nine of the 10 criteria we set out in the earliest iteration of this project (which uses historical data and current statistics to determine which mid-majors have the best chance of pulling off tourney upsets against the big boys), and despite receiving what was a rather controversial at-large bid at the time, the Patriots went on to shock the college hoops universe.

Our model has advanced quite a bit since then (check out our methodology, for free, here), and every year at this time we delve into the stats to find "this year's George Mason."

With that pursuit in mind, could it be that 2011's George Mason is ... George Mason?

Our model says yes. In fact, as Peter Keating pointed out on Thursday, the new-and-improved statistical database actually likes the 2010-11 Patriots better than the gang that crashed the 2006 party.

But here's the rub: That might not matter at all.

In his latest bracket, Joe Lunardi has the Patriots pegged as an 8 seed, meaning their first-round game wouldn't even qualify as a Giant Killers' matchup. And if they were to advance, they'd have to take down a No. 1 seed, a far tougher first-weekend task than they faced in 2006.

That team entered the field as an 11 seed, meaning that its road to the Sweet 16 went through a considerably easier seeding combo, and its two victims also happened to be particularly shaky Giants. The No. 6 Michigan State Spartans had an extremely high vulnerability rating (49.1) and the No. 3 North Carolina Tar Heels weren't much safer at 44.7. So even though Mason has a higher GK score this season (36.2) than in 2006 (30.7), it's hard to imagine it will face a more vulnerable Giant early in the tourney.

"Wait a minute," you surely will say. "Mason beat a No. 1 seed to get to the Final Four in 2006!" And that's true. But would you believe that super-talented Connecticut Huskies team, which was 30-3 entering its Elite 8 matchup with the Patriots, actually carried the stigma of a 31.2 vulnerability rating into that game? That's just more proof that basketball truly is a game of matchups, particularly subtle ones that our stats illuminate.

For instance, that UConn team was particularly bad at forcing turnovers, and George Mason handled the ball well. So the Patriots, featuring a balanced offense, were able to pound the post with Jai Lewis and Will Thomas and spread Folarin Campbell, Lamar Butler and Tony Skinn around the perimeter. They could run their stuff and attack mismatches. Sure enough, they only turned it over 11 times. When a team doesn't put pressure on an opposing offense, it runs the risk of a hot-shooting night, which was exactly what the Patriots delivered, going 30-for-60 from the field, including 9-for-18 from downtown.
Mason would have been in much more trouble against a Giant that lacked UConn's talent but pressured the ball more effectively.

These Patriots aren't uber-balanced like the 2006 squad, whose five starters averaged between 1..0 and 13.7 points per game. But they're pretty darn close, with four guys scoring in double figures. (OK, Andre Cornelius technically averages 9.9 ppg, but we'll round up on that one.) And this group actually has a couple of distinct advantages, including a miniscule turnover percentage (16.7 percent of possessions, 15th in the NCAA) and a bit heavier reliance on 3-pointers, which bodes well for a team looking to score an upset.

So do these Patriots have the resume to make another run? Absolutely. Will they have as favorable a path? We'll find out tomorrow evening.