“The Cinderella Code” is a six-part series by Matt Craig, who spent last season as the lead mid-major writer at The Fieldhouse, which is The Athletic’s national college basketball platform. He has shared with us his senior honors thesis from his time at Ball State University, which examines why so-called Cinderella teams can make Final Four runs. You can sign up for his newsletter, “No Content For Old Men,” here.
Here is Part 1 of “The Cinderella Code:”
When the University of Connecticut basketball team stepped on the court during the 2005-06 season, they knew they were the best team in country. Everyone who watched them knew it too.
Three of their five starters stood 6’9 or taller, forming a front line that was as impressive as it was intimidating. All five players were expecting to be selected after the season in the first round of the NBA draft, with star forward Rudy Gay receiving attention as a potential top pick.
Heading into the NCAA Tournament, the Huskies had a record of 27 wins and three losses, punctuated by a commanding 14-point victory over No. 2 Villanova in the season’s final weeks. Media experts and Las Vegas odds makers alike tabbed Connecticut as the odds-on favorite to win the national championship. A trip to the Final Four, the sport’s biggest stage, was inevitable.
The Huskies rolled through the first three rounds of the tournament, dispatching blue-blood Kentucky in the second round and a Washington team led by top-five NBA draft prospect Brandon Roy in the Sweet 16.
Then they got a lucky break.
Their Elite Eight opponent, the only team standing between them and the Final Four, was considered to be the least-talented team of any remaining in the tournament. Throughout the season Connecticut beat four teams ranked in the top 10 in the country, and this team was seeded No. 11 in its own quarter of the tournament bracket. The tallest player on their entire roster was 6’7. In a live interview with ESPN before the game, Connecticut guard Rashad Anderson was asked if he could name any of the players on the opposing team. He admitted he couldn’t.
It wasn’t until a nine-point halftime lead evaporated in the game’s final minutes that the Huskies realized they were in for a fight. The game went to overtime, and when the final buzzer sounded, the five short, no-name players were the ones hugging and celebrating. The unassuming team from the Colonial Athletic Association was going to the Final Four, thanks to pulling off one of the greatest upsets in sports history.
None of them would ever set foot on an NBA court or receive million-dollar endorsement deals, but as two players climbed on top of the media table after the game and grabbed both sides of their green and gold jerseys to pump them out to the crowd, no one would ever forget the name written across the chest: George Mason.
What happened in the 2006 NCAA Tournament can probably be best summed up by a sign seen in the crowd that day. It read, “Goliath, meet David.”
The comparison to the most famous underdog story in history was appropriate. Just like the puny shepherd David, George Mason’s players were physically small, and their talents were figuratively small in comparison to the unstoppable giant Connecticut. Perhaps most importantly in a sport where money and success are synonymous, George Mason’s total athletics budget of $10 million was small, nearly five times less than that of Connecticut. And they hadn’t just slain one Goliath. George Mason defeated four in a two-week span.
In the opening round of the tournament they defeated mighty Michigan State, who had made it to the previous year’s Final Four and was led by a first round NBA draft pick in Shannon Brown. Then they took down perennial power North Carolina, the defending national champions. A 28-6 Wichita State team became the third victim, and finally the dominant Huskies. All of this happened in a season that began with a projected starter tearing his Anterior Cruciate Ligament and seemingly ending with an unceremonious conference tournament loss, leaving them in need of the conference’s first at-large tournament bid in 20 years to even make it to the Big Dance.
There’s never been a more quintessential underdog in the history of college basketball than George Mason.
In the 12 years following George Mason’s run, four more mid-major underdog stories were written. Butler made back-to-back appearances in the Final Four in 2010 and 2011 out of the Horizon League, joined in 2011 by Virginia Commonwealth from the Colonial Athletic Association. In 2013 it was Wichita State from the Missouri Valley, followed by Loyola Chicago from the same conference in 2018.
How did they do it?
Any explanation for these extraordinary runs by mid-majors quickly becomes fantastical. Loyola for example, was said to have won because its 98-year-old chaplain had a hotline to God. For Butler, the ghosts of Milan High School and the subsequent 1986 film Hoosiers were invoked. In 2006, Connecticut head coach Jim Calhoun could only describe what George Mason did as a “magic carpet ride,” in reference to the 1992 Disney movie Aladdin.
Through the years, the rest of the country has chosen another Disney fairytale to explain these occurrences: Cinderella. In each a humble hero receives magical powers and transcends his or her status to overcome an impossible challenge. In the case of David and Goliath, taking down the giant required divine intervention.
But what if it wasn’t magic?
In 2013, best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell investigated the duel between David and Goliath with an objective eye. His conclusion was that almost everything we believe about David defeating Goliath is wrong. Sure, Goliath was a man of immense stature and strength. He could not be matched in hand-to-hand combat. And yes, David was small, had no armor and was armed with just a sling and some stones.
But David had no intention of fighting by Goliath’s rules. He was a projectile warrior, with the ability to fire a rock at the force equivalent to a modern handgun with pinpoint precision directly at Goliath’s most vulnerable point. The scriptures and modern medical experts agree Goliath likely suffered from acromegaly, a pituitary gland tumor that caused an overproduction of human growth hormone, which compressed his optic nerves and likely left him functionally blind. He couldn’t see the projectile coming. In the book, Gladwell captures a powerful quote from historian Robert Dohrenwend:
“Goliath had as much chance against David as any Bronze Age warrior with a sword would have had against an [opponent] armed with a .45 automatic pistol.”
From this comes Gladwell’s concept of “desirable disadvantages.” David did not defeat Goliath because of magic. He also didn’t win because he was the more powerful warrior. He wasn’t. He was simply the appropriate warrior, with the right weapon and the right strategy, to defeat an opponent that overlooked him. The very same attributes that were seen conventionally as handicaps made him mighty.
Let’s return to Washington D.C. in the spring of 2006 with fresh perspective. Here’s what George Mason head coach Jim Larrañaga said as he scouted his two potential Elite Eight opponents:
“I wanted to play [Connecticut],” Larrañaga said. “I did not want to play [their Sweet 16 opponent] Washington.”
What? Why would he want to play the best team in all of college basketball? His explanation was this:
“The University of Connecticut was very similar to Michigan State and Carolina. They were very big. Big teams will very often play behind in the post. We had two of the best offensive post players in America in Jai Lewis and Will Thomas. So I knew we were going to be able to throw the ball into them.”
Larrañaga knew Lewis and Thomas were not as talented or as tall as Connecticut’s Hilton Armstrong and Josh Boone, who would be taken 12th and 23rd respectively in the NBA Draft a few months later. Thomas really only had one post move: a turn around left hook shot. But to his credit, if he got it off it was going in. And despite Lewis being nearly 300 pounds, he had light feet and a sweet mid-range jump shot that could catch unsuspecting opponents off-guard. Connecticut’s big men weren’t prepared for either. By their own admission, they didn’t even know their names.
Just like Goliath, Connecticut’s size and strength had made them blind. “I’d be less than candid to say I feared George Mason a lot more than my players did,” Calhoun said. “That’s only normal.”
Connecticut was so blind, in fact, that in the second half George Mason simplified its offense down to a single play.
“We ran the same play 25 consecutive times. We didn’t change one thing on offense. We didn’t make one adjustment at all,” Larrañaga said.
The play started on the right side of the floor behind the three-point line, then the ball was passed over to the left side and dumped down low to the left block for Lewis or Thomas, who combined to score nearly half of the Patriots’ points in the game. One George Mason assistant coach was dumbfounded, and remarked, “The bench, we just kept sitting there and asking, ‘Why are they not double-teaming him?’”
George Mason didn’t even make a substitution in the final 15 minutes of regulation, as all five starters stayed on the floor and contributed double-digit scoring efforts consistent with their balanced season averages. They were working together seamlessly, unlike the self-destructing Huskies, who were heard yelling ‘Pass me the f----g ball!” repeatedly at one another.
Unlike other opponents, George Mason was not intimidated by the reputation of the Connecticut players. Before the game, Thomas shared with his teammates that his record against Connecticut star Rudy Gay stood at seven wins and zero losses, as his high school team in Baltimore had beaten Gay’s each time they met, including twice for the local Catholic league championship.
“I never lost to him in high school, not planning to lose to him in college,” he said.
As the game progressed and the possibility of an upset grew, George Mason had another ally: the crowd. A George Mason team that hadn’t sold out their 10,000-seat arena in Fairfax a single time during the season was playing in front of 18,000 fans at the Verizon Center. All were pulling for the Patriots.
“There were times we couldn’t even hear Coach L in the huddle,” said George Mason guard Lamar Butler.
The crowd was behind George Mason for more than just their underdog status.
The Verizon Center, located in downtown Washington D.C., was no more than 25 miles from George Mason’s campus. What’s more, all five starters grew up in close proximity to the area. Tony Skinn was from Takoma Park, seven miles from the arena; Lamar Butler was from Oxon Hill, 11 miles south; Will Thomas was from Baltimore, 40 miles east; Folarin Campbell was from Silver Spring, 11 miles north; and Jai Lewis was the farthest from his hometown of Aberdeen, just past Baltimore about 70 miles away. George Mason was literally the hometown team.
Mark Turgeon, coach of the Wichita State team that George Mason eliminated in the same arena two days before facing Connecticut, said after the loss, “I knew it was going to be a road game, but I didn’t think it was going to be 16,000 George Mason fans in there. And I just remember how loud and wild [it was], and how loose George Mason’s team was and excited to be there. We really didn’t have any chance.”
Does George Mason’s upset of Connecticut seem like magic now? Of course not. The same applies to our other mid-major “Cinderellas.” Butler, VCU, Wichita State and Loyola Chicago did not win four consecutive NCAA Tournament games against the top teams in the country and advance to Final Four because they were just lucky, or wondrously operating above their capacity.
Sentimentality might make for a tidy narrative, but it’s a stale and ultimately inadequate way to explain how these programs were able to reach the pinnacle of college basketball despite inferior talent, unconventional tactics and inadequate resources.
COMING UP IN THIS SERIES: An investigation of the real reasons why these miraculous runs happened, the eccentric characters behind them, and the impacts they produced.