From hoops no-name to Final Four legend

This story begins not with a "Once upon a time" but with an agonizing wait.

Before the George Mason Patriots toppled defending champion North Carolina - before they turned "March Madness" to utter insanity by defeating the No. 1-ranked Connecticut Huskies to reach Saturday's Final Four - they were a team clouded in controversy and certain of nothing.

Cinderella almost didn't get invited to the dance.

The team had lost twice in the 10 days before the tournament. In the final game, its star player had lost his head and punched an opponent. And this was George Mason, after all, a school with the basketball pedigree of a street mutt - never had it won a tournament game.

Then somehow, almost inexplicably, George Mason got in, and from that moment, they have shaken the basketball world like a snow globe.

March is supposed to be the month of upsets in college basketball. But only once before has a team seeded this low made it this far. And never in the quarter century since the tournament expanded to 64 teams has a team from basketball's lower caste - the "mid-major" conferences - reached the sacred ground of the Final Four.

It seems only fitting, then, that this of all Final Fours should be held in Indianapolis, where the Milan Indians - who inspired the film "Hoosiers" - won their high school state championship 52 years ago.

Already, the Patriots have established their place in sports history. This weekend, with two more improbable wins, they could become a cultural legend.

"This has been a once-in-a- lifetime story," says Jay Bilas, a commentator and former starter for Duke University. "If they win it all, it will be a story for the ages."

As it is, it has been a coming-of-age, both for a basketball team and for an entire school. With every bump as he backs into other players, Jai Lewis is clearing a path not only to the basket, but also to respectability for a university that until now often has been treated only with high-browed condescension.

The Patriots have obvious talent, but Lewis is their tallest starter at 6-foot-7 - and nearly as wide. Their guards are solid shooters who buzz the backcourt like bees, but won't be signing shoe contracts anytime soon. In fact, even in the meek Colonial Athletic Association, George Mason failed to win the conference tournament.

By contrast, three of George Mason's four opponents in the tournament this year were nothing less than college basketball aristocracy. Michigan State, North Carolina, and Connecticut are the finishing schools for players who aspire to entourages and million-dollar signing bonuses. Each has won the national title once this decade.

How, exactly, George Mason managed to beat them is a question only slightly less enigmatic than the origin of the universe. Yes, the Patriots defense is tighter than a Victorian corset, and college basketball seems to be going through a cycle when sparse talent has shrunk the gap between the haves and have-nots.

But contrary to popular opinion, George Mason is no standard-bearer for a new order in college basketball. Even as more basketball players leave college early to turn professional, major schools have maintained their dominance. It has been 27 years since long-shot schools Penn and Indiana State reached the Final Four; it might be another quarter century before such a run happens again. "It's inexplicable," says Bilas. "But it's been really fun to watch."

That's just how George Mason senior Lacy Richardson likes it. "The great thing about our team is that it's a mystery," she says. "No one knows what makes us tick."

It simply wouldn't be George Mason if it were easy - or expected. In the 49 years since its founding, George Mason University has struggled to find its place among the august institutions of the Old Dominion.

This is the state where the University of Virginia sells car window stickers that read simply: "The University" - and everybody knows what they mean. This is the state of William & Mary, which tends to mention a lot that it is older than every other university in the United States, save Harvard.

By these standards, George Mason's spot among the sprawl of northern Virginia's strip malls has made it seem more like an overgrown community college than an educational equal. Indeed, less than one-fifth of the university's students live in dorms.

Yet this day, Richardson sees a sight she has never seen before. At a pep rally in the university's three-story food court, students throng the floor in a bramble of gold and green - the school colors. They lean from upper floors and stand in an hour-long line just to get into the nearby bookstore to buy a T-shirt.

"It has never, ever been like this," she says, looking around almost with a sense of awe. "We got respect overnight. This put us on the map."

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