I had so much fun exhaustively reporting out the 10-year anniversary story of the 2006 George Mason team that shocked the world and changed the tournament forever when it reached the Final Four. If you've not yet gotten a chance to read it, stop reading here, go check that out, then circle back around for the bonus cuts.
The story is long as is (more than 9,990 words), but if even still, I had to cut a lot in order to keep the pace and tension of the piece going. There are elements and anecdotes to that GMU team I found interesting enough that I wanted to share and just do an info/quote dump. So let's just get on with it.
THE PLAYERS LANDING AT MASON
LAMAR BUTLER: Played on the same AAU team as Delonte West, and won a state title in 2000 at Oxon Hill (Md.) alongside a future Georgetown centerpiece and NBA lottery pick, Mike Sweetney. Larrañaga recruited Butler, and his childhood best friend who grew on on the same street, Phil Goss. During an informal visit in 2000 Larrañaga told them both in person he had one scholarship available, so the first guy to verbally commit would get that scholarship. Butler committed a few days later, before ever taking an official visit. He chose Mason over Xavier. The decision angered Butler's father. After he committed, then-GMU assistant Bill Courtney told Butler he was so happy he never took his scheduled visit to Xavier -- because he knew Butler would have committed had he taken the trip out to Cincinnati.
Goss would go on to star at Drexel but did not play in an NCAA Tournament.
Butler and his father cried as they hugged at center court on March 26, 2006, minutes after Mason upset Connecticut and just before Butler was interviewed by Bill Raftery.
TONY SKINN: Was not recruited out of Tacoma Park, Md., by any D-I school. His road to Mason was longer and more serpentine than any other player on that '06 team. Skinn landed at Mason after a stint at Blinn College in Brenham, Texas, then a stop at Hagerstown, in Maryland, where he was putting up nearly 30 points per game. That was in 2002, when Courtney (now the coach at Cornell) and Eric Konkol (now the coach at Louisiana Tech, where Skinn is an assistant) saw him. Skinn was out of his element early at Mason. During his first workout he was so confused doing basic footwork and skill drills, the coaches asked him if he'd done any basic fundamental work at his previous two JuCo stops. He hadn't.
JAI LEWIS: Grew up in Aberdeen, Md., and picked Mason over fellow Colonial Athletic Conference teams VCU and Drexel. Larrañaga was worried at the prospect of having to face Lewis for four years in the league, and wondered if he'd pick Philadelphia-based Drexel because Lewis' girlfriend at the time attended Villanova. But Mason's location -- close enough to home, but far enough away -- was a determining factor.
WILL THOMAS: He was almost passed over by the staff until Konkol took another look at him at an AAU tournament and was convinced he'd be perfect at the 4 in Larrañaga's offense. Larrañaga didn't see him until months later, and within five minutes of watching him play, he had to have him on the team. Like Butler, Thomas was convinced to commit before ever taking official visits to other schools. He picked GMU over the likes of Providence, Richmond and Ohio State. At 6-foot-8, he was Mason's tallest player that season. Thomas was extremely quiet. He didn't speak much when he was younger either. His mother would give him puzzles and he sit and solve them.
FOLARIN CAMPBELL: Was the best recruit of the five Larrañaga chased. I explain in the story that he was basically setting his sights on Georgetown—and then Georgetown pulled its offer.
GABE NORWOOD: Was similar to Skinn in that he couldn't get D-I offers. His dad is a D-I football coach and has worked at Richmond, Navy, Texas Tech, Penn State, Baylor and is currently defensive coordinator at Tulsa. Norwood only wound up at Mason after his team won a state title in Pennsylvania -- and they discovered tapes of him that this father dropped off at GMU a year earlier.
Where are they now? Butler, 32, lives in D.C. after spending a five-year overseas career in Turkey (twice), the Czech Republic and Libya. He has his own clothing apparel/uniforms/equipment business. Lewis -- who played for six years in Israel, the Phillipines and Japan -- is now 33 and works as a behavior interventionist, helping troubled young people deal with behavioral development. Skinn, 33, went viral with a vicious dunk back in 2010 while playing overseas. He played on the Nigerian national team that was in the 2012 Olympics. Thomas, Campbell and Gabe Norwood are still playing overseas. Thomas is in Spain, Campbell in Poland and Norwood in the Philippines. I spoke to those three over Skype while reporting the story. Norwood gave me more than an hour of his time while chatting in a cafe in Manila with his wife. He's lived there since 2009. He has two children, as does Campbell, who married his high school sweetheart.
To a man, they all say that George Mason run has been something overseas teammates have asked them about with each stop. That '06 Final Four really did put that school on the map globally.
I couldn't work in just how important Eric Konkol and Bill Courtney were, so I have to say it here. Basically, Chris Caputo -- who was an assistant on the '06 Mason team -- was at first a low-level assistant. He worked camps and did the grunt work behind the scenes. He was the guy who first got to know and develop relationships with Folarin Campbell and Will Thomas. Then Konkol and Courtney ran recruitment of those players. But both those guys took jobs elsewhere just before the '05-06 season. They were an integral part of that Final Four team yet did not get to sit on the bench. They missed out on the party but basically baked the cake. Also, Caputo was going to leave Mason to work for the Hoop Group, but when Konkol left to take a job at Hopkins High School in 2005, Caputo got his chance to join the staff. Scott Cherry was previously an assistant at GMU, then went to Tennessee Tech for a year, but got the offer to come back once Bill Courtney left to be an assistant at Providence.
THE REGULAR SEASON
-- Larrañaga continually asked then-Creighton coach Dana Altman to come play at George Mason. Altman kept saying no. Altman was afraid of criticism for scheduling a small school like GMU. Finally, he said he'd take the game if Notre Dame and Ohio State wouldn't agree to play Creighton. They didn't, so in September of '05, Altman and Larrañaga sign the contract. Creighton romps GMU, and it becomes the game that changes how GMU assembled its starting five and played its defense.
-- Mason lost in OT at Wake Forest and on a last-second shot at Mississippi State. The team felt it got jobbed by the refs at Wake, while Norwood still blames the MSU loss on himself for a bad inbounds pass near the end of the game.
-- Jai Lewis on why Will Thomas was to credit for his senior season: "Going against Will in practice every day, that was tough enough. Once will came in as a freshman, he helped me raise the level of my game because i didn't want him to take my spot. What people don't know is, after every rebound every point either of us missed in getting a double-double, we did pushups after every game."
-- "VCU was always crazy because they sat their band right next to our bench. Their band director would be on us and yelling at our bench. We'd be like, man, don't you have to direct the band? He was crazy -- but we won." -- Gabe Norwood
MARCH OF 2006
-- What's lost a bit with Mason's run is how Jai Lewis (6-6, 290 pounds at that point) basically had no business playing as much he did. He remembers being very frustrated. He played out the final three weeks of the regular season on two injured ankles, requiring intense cold-water therapy before and after games to keep him halfway healthy.
-- After the Skinn punch debacle, Caputo was nervous and didn’t want to be around the campus whatsoever. He went as far as to recruit near the Mexican border, in Cochise, Arizona. He remembers Skinn’s punch being played over and over on ESPN. The reason why Mason and Larrañaga were so serious about having so much fun in the tournament was because the team had to wait a week to find out of it was getting in, and that was a very long week.
-- There was controversy with Mason getting in because Tom O'Connor, the AD, was also on the selection committee. Craig Littlepage being the committee chair, also introduced an element ripe for conspiracy theorists. Littlepage told me he did not speak with Larrañaga until after the Final Four because "as committee chair I wanted to make sure I was as objective as anyone could be over the circumstances. I wasn't cheering for or against George Mason. I wasn't cheering for or against any other team."
-- Loved this anecdote. So Will Thomas was a quiet dude, but in the days before the MSU game, it got strange. He was also the only guy on the team not clearly having fun. Caputo's quote was: "He was very ornery all week. Didn't like the new sneakers, the new sweatsuits. 'I don't like the pancakes at breakfast. This sucks.'" So the coaches started to worry. Larrañaga called his friend, the sports psychologist, Bob Rotella, who spoke to the team in October, and asked what he should do, that he "wanted to kill" Thomas for hurting the team's vibe. Rotella told him to leave Thomas alone, that he was gearing himself up for Michigan State. If he went at Thomas and Thomas got angry, it could make matters worse. So they let it be ... and Thomas just went off for 18 and 14 and killed Paul Davis on MSU. I asked Thomas to confirm this story, and he did.
"They were extra slim. That was before slim-cut was in style," he said of the sweatsuits, laughing now. "I was upset."
-- A quote from Izzo I kept when transcribing but cut from the story: "What I remember most is disappointment of course, because we had a good team, but all the people kind of laughing [at George Mason]. And then it's North Carolina and then UConn and the beat went on. I remember at the Final Four it was a big topic of conversation. I got caught up in the euphoria and all the excitement out there with that run."
-- Gabe Norwood: "One of the biggest memories for me was, my freshman year, we played at UNC. I'm awestruck walking into the Dean Dome, and Sean May is on the other side, and Jai is straight killing him. It was mutal them going back and forth. Seeing Jai competing on that level on the big stage inspired me to be better."
-- Mark Turgeon on the RPI and the Valley teams gaming the system: "We tried to schedule teams that we thought we could beat but thought would win a lot of games and would have a chance to win their leagues. You did that a lot. I even scheduled a DIvision II so it wouldn't count against my RPI."
-- Larrañaga told me he wasn't confident his team would've beaten Tennessee in the Sweet 16. UT got knocked off by Wichita State. And the reason WSU beat the Vols? Here's Turgeon: :"We matched up well with Tennessee but they had a mid-major lineup. They had four guards around a center, who was slight. They were fast and pressed. We were lucky to win, but I felt we matched up with that team. What helped us in that game was, Tom Davis (coached) at Drake, and Tennessee ran the system because Bruce Pearl (Tennessee's coach) worked for Tom Davis. So we saw the system a lot over the years. We played Drake twice a year."
-- If you're curious which assistant had the lead scout for the UConn game: Caputo. In fact, Caputo was the lead scout on every game in that tournament.
-- Larrañaga said the idea that the UConn game was the biggest of his career "never entered" his mind.
-- Lamar Butler on playing in D.C. "The fans, you don't know even notice them once the ball goes up. Looking back, it wasn't on the court, it was off the court that we won. That team is like family. You saw one of us, you saw all of us. Parties or whatever, we were always together. I remember going to the grocery store and guys going out to their vehicles and saying, 'Hey, you need a ride?'"
-- Can't emphasize enough how ridiculous it is that a team like George Mason, which lacked a true big man, ran the same damn play about 25 times in a row -- and UConn did not do anything about it. Scott Cherry: "The bench, we just kept sitting there and asking, 'Why are they not double-teaming him?' Jai wasn't very big. He had long arms, great hands and great footwork. He's got that butt on him. He could back you down and get to the rim, and has his length to score. And Will was automatic using his left hand. If they took that away, he had a great drop-step. The double teams weren't coming and they never made an adjustment."
-- Butler on UConn tying at the end of regulation: "I remember walking to the huddle being so tired, but we've got five more minutes. At no point did I sense any lack of urgency from our team. Nobody's feeling sorry for us about losing the game."
-- James Johnson: "The look that I saw in those guys' eyes ... I don't know if anyone would have beaten us that night. Never once did our guys look fatigued or like, This is too much."
-- Folarin Campbell on the fallaway he hit over Rudy Gay in OT to give GMU a four-point lead. "That was the biggest shot I've ever made in my college and professional career. It was a play that broke down. I was on the right-hand side. Rudy was guarding me and I remember Coach L behind me saying, 'Take him.' He's 6-9, I'm 6-4, and I swished it. When I released it everything felt good."
-- Many GMU players commented on UConn's lack of chemistry. Some of that is quoted in the story. Here's Will Thomas: "I think they played like that the whole season. They weren't really a team. Collectively they had a good team on paper, but I don't think they were completely together. If you really watched them, you could tell they weren't playing together, they were just, 'Well, we're out here together, so let's run the play."
Butler and Norwood told me three UConn players admitted to them later in life that the Huskies' locker room was not close, and that the loss to GMU was something that still bothered them.
-- Calhoun told me not his '06 club, but instead his 1994-95 team (Ray Allen, Donny Marshall) that lost as a No. 2 seed to UCLA in the Elite Eight was his best group not to reach a Final Four.
-- Larrañaga got one of the nets; Lewis got the other.
-- So Billy Packer made a huge stink about George Mason's inclusion to begin with. Then, at GMU's first night in Indy at the Final Four, the team goes out to have a luxurious dinner at the famous St. Elmo's Steak House. Jim Nantz and Packer happened to be in the house.
"Larrañaga said, 'Why don't you go down there and apologize to those kids," Caputo said. "Nantz couldn't have been nicer. Pure class."
-- Mason's story dovetailed with the tremendous story of Jason McElwain, the autistic teen whose 3-point barrage in February turned him into a national story. McElwain was with them on the team bus and attended shootaround. Larrañaga and McElwain had a 3-point shooting contest; McElwain beat him, 10-9.
-- Larrañaga's son, who was living in Naples, Italy, flew across the world the night/morning before the Florida game. Jim met his grandson, James Larrañaga III, for the first time when he was brought to Jim's hotel room shortly before they got on the bus for the national semifinal. JL3 was born almost two months before, on Feb. 9, 2006.
-- By the time you get to a Final Four, details matter and schedules go haywire. Larrañaga said biggest obstacle was the schedule. "It entirely messed up our routine because of how far the locker rooms were for the court. We had to out for national anthem, back to the locker room, back out for the tip. I'm in my suit and dress shoes, but the security people say, you gotta get back out on the court. It was so far a walk, that you had to run."
-- Players told me their adrenaline was so high, they ran to the court -- but their locker rooms were on the opposite side at the RCA Dome.
"My god, we dead-sprinted from the locker room," Norwood said. "They had the VIP party behind one of the bleachers. I remember being tired by the time we got on the court to warm up. We honestly just dead-sprinted 80 yards to get into layup lines. I was trying to catch my breath."
-- Norwood on the experience in Indy: "Overwhelmed is probably the best word. From the heightened security at the hotel all of the sudden, to people asking us to sign stuff and seeing it on eBay within 20 minutes. To be a 20-year-old kid signing an autograph for little kids who look up for you all of a sudden, it was really cool."
-- Jai Lewis: "Playing Florida? I think we played well against the Florida. They had everything they needed to win. I honestly believe that if we could play that game again, I think we could come out victorious. The game was close until about 10 minutes [to go]."
-- Norwood said Larrañaga's rule for not wearing headphones paid off in this respect: "He wanted us to get to know the Greeks, the club members, student government. We built friendships outside the world of sports on campus, and I think that helped with support the whole way through. There were people who went to Dayton, people who helped drive and set up the buses to go to Indianapolis. These people were our friends. These are people I still talk to now."
-- Finally, this quote from Butler stood out to me: "The experience was crazy. It's hard to leave your hotel. Autographs. People everywhere. Then you're playing in a dome, and I'd never played in a dome. That was our first experience. My first shot was an airball in shootaround. It was a different backdrop, the perception was off. I remember some kids wanted our autographs to put it on eBay. I remember walking one time with a hood on and just wanting to walk, to have people not recognize me."
Reporting on this story was a thrill. I think it's one of the best stories in the history of college basketball, and I wonder if we'll ever again have the true sense of surprise that Mason provided us. Butler, VCU and Wichita State's Final Four runs were so fun and great too, but they did not match the shock of what Mason did, when it became the first mid-major team in the modern era to redefine what double-digit seeds could do in the NCAAs.