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Patriots starting a revolution
George Mason's amazing run last season is heightening the expectations of all mid-major programs across the nation.

 For mid-major players like George Mason's Lamar Butler to cut down the nets, their team will need perseverance, guile and a lot of luck.
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Date published: 11/15/2006


Sprinkled among the thousands of congratulatory handshakes, phone calls and e-mails Jim Larranaga received this summer were a few admonishments--only half-joking--from his peers.

The gist: Way to go. And thanks a lot. You just made all our jobs a lot harder.

If George Mason's improbable Final Four run last spring didn't quite change the college basketball landscape, it did raise the bar for the best teams from the so-called "mid-major" conferences.

No longer are 20 victories, an NCAA tournament bid and an occasional upset of a top seed the most a team can hope for.

"We all understand that this is a very competitive world," Larranaga said recently. "When someone does something, everyone wants to do that. Whether you're from a high-major or a mid-major conference, the objective is to get to the Final Four.

"Now, everyone thinks, 'I wonder if I can do that?' And the answer is obviously yes, it can be done."

But not easily.

Teams from the six largest conferences--the Atlantic Coast, Big East, Southeastern, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pacific 10--still have huge advantages in budgets, facilities, TV exposure and access to top recruits.

The recent NBA rule change barring players under age 20 also helps the top programs. Stars who might have bypassed college completely are likely to choose a school with a shot at the national title for their one or two seasons.

Still, while George Mason became the first true mid-major program to reach the Final Four since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, it's important to remember that the Patriots only shared the Colonial Athletic Association regular-season title with Hofstra and didn't even win the league tournament. The Patriots had to wait breathlessly for an at-large bid that almost didn't come.

Meanwhile, the mid-major Missouri Valley Conference earned as many NCAA bids (four) as the mighty ACC, which has produced 10 national champions (and six of the past 16).

So when play tipped off last week, optimism abounded.

"Around the country, people are saying, 'George Mason made it to the Final Four. Is that what my leadership wants?' That's probably not realistic," said coach Blaine Taylor of Old Dominion, one of GMU's top CAA rivals.

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For a look at regional teams prospects, see Page B6

The area ACC teams will be profiled tomorrow.