When they were chosen, a third team from a league whose standard issue
is one invitation to the Big Dance, their bona fides were questioned by
experts that considered it ridiculous that the Colonial Athletic
Association could get three teams in while a certain, highly-publicized
conference that has produced eight of the last 24 national champions got
only four. Instead of questioning why only four from that league, the
experts might want to ask themselves how it is Hofstra and Old Dominion
from the CAA were left out?
The Patriots have earned their way to Saturday's semifinal game with the
Florida Gators (6 p.m., CBS) because they really do believe they can
win. They aren't afraid of anyone and that's unusual for eleventh-seeded
teams. Low seeds usually pull off an upset or two in the NCAA Tournament
but once the oxygen begins to thin out as they near the top of the
mountain, they always do their best imitation of former vice
presidential candidate James Stockwell and ask, "Who am I and what am I
doing here?" before doing a crash and burn.
The Patriots never questioned why they were here and win or lose against
the Gators, they will never stop believing that they belong or that they
are capable of not only playing but beating any team in the country.
They aren't the least bit intimidated by the big stage. They aren't the
least bit cocky but they are loose and confident.
The source of the confidence is the coach. Maybe you never heard of Jim
Larranaga before the Patriots whacked Michigan State and North Carolina,
which was just before they left mighty UConn lying in a roadside ditch
on their way to Indy. Maybe you should have.
Maybe you should have because Larranaga is indeed that rare coach who
really is about all the right things. He doesn't just say all the right
things. He really does all the right things.
You want proof?
In a CAA semifinal game, Tony Skinn, one of the Patriots' best players,
sucker punched Hofstra's Leon Stokes in the groin. The zebras missed it
but Larranaga only had to look at Stokes crumpled in a heap on the floor
and Skinn's face to know something bad had happened. There was a minute
left in the game and Mason was down by four. At that time, conventional
wisdom said the Patriots had to make at least make the championship game
to get in the NCAA Tournament.
"I know Tony and I knew he had done something he was ashamed of," said
Larranaga at Friday's press conference at the RCA Dome. "I could see it
in his face. So, I took him out of the game, did not put him back in,
even though we were down four with a minute to go."
When he viewed the film of the incident, Larranaga immediately suspended
Skinn for one game --- not the first game next year but the next game,
which turned out to be the first game of the NCAA Tournament against
Michigan State, a team that has won one national title and made it to
two other Final Fours since 2000. It was a decision he made without a
nanosecond of hesitation.
Can you imagine this happening at a certain school in Florida where the
coach has explained his sliding scale of discipline by claiming "why
there are millions of dollars involved here"?
Asked Friday if it was difficult to sit a star for a huge game,
Larranaga responded, "When you asked me how difficult it was, quite
frankly, I didn't think it was difficult at all. I'm not going to judge
based on the circumstances. I'm not going to be influenced by what the
cause and effect might be or what the consequences are. If I did that,
I'd be changing my philosophy every single day. We can't live that way.
We have to have a certain amount of core values that we live by.
"Tony didn't behave the way we wanted him to. He knew what was coming. I
explained to the team, I'm not punishing Tony, we're disciplining him,
trying to teach him something he probably already knows. But this is a
reminder. You're not going to play in the first game whether we're in
the NCAA Tournament or NIT. Whether we get into a post-season tournament
or not, that's not what we stand for, you know that. That's not who he
is. That was the point."
Skinn got the point. His teammates understood, too. Skinn and his
teammates got the message because they have a coach who doesn't waver.
There is no sliding scale of justice and there are no prayers for
misdemeanors. There is right and there is wrong. You always do the right
"Circumstances do not dictate whether or not we follow that policy,"
Skinn's teammates sucked it up and beat Michigan State without their
best player, then they knocked off the defending national champions,
North Carolina, another one of college basketball's bluebloods. Skinn
was back in uniform for that game but he didn't start.
"I think something we all learn is that when you make a mistake, you
have to pay the price," said Larranaga. "I think it's something that
now, looking back, was the best thing in the world for him and for us."
The Patriots are here at the Final Four because they are a very good
team, certainly deserving and certainly capable. They are where they are
not just because they are a good team, though. They have reached this
crossroads on their rather magical journey because their coach
understands that it's not just good enough to be a winner in basketball,
you have to be a winner in life, too.
"What we stand for is far greater than whether we win or lose on a
basketball floor," he said. "We are all educators. Our responsibility is
to teach these youngsters, whether they're basketball players or any
other student-athlete who we're responsible for working with, to set the
"Is winning important? Yes, we all strive to win but more importantly is
we strive for excellence in all areas. We want to exceed in the
classroom. We want to exceed in behavior off the court. We want to see
our students graduate."
The more Larranaga talked, the easier it is to understand why the
Patriots are where they are. They've been labeled Cinderella because
they have done what seemed so impossible just three weeks ago. They've
been labeled no-names by so-called experts that measure greatness by the
number of McDonald's All-Americans adorning the roster.
Larranaga probably wouldn't say no to a McDonald's All-American that
wanted to join his band of basketball gypsies in Fairfax. Probably
wouldn't. But he might. He would definitely say no if that McDonald's
All-American didn't measure up on his character scale that never slides.
He doesn't measure the success of his recruiting classes by the number
of stars after the name but by character and willingness to learn.
"One question I'm always asked after the recruiting period is what kind
of recruiting year do you think you've had?" Larranaga said. "And my
answer is always the same. Ask me in 10 years when I see what they're
doing with their lives."