The most fascinating cases of March Madness greatness are the stories that rise from the depths of obscurity. Little-known schools that become America’s darlings as they go on to defeat the traditional blue-chip powerhouses that dominate the college game are part of what makes the tournament so cool. Teams like last year’s Stephen F. Austin, led by the Lumberjack himself, Thomas Walkup, or the 2013 Florida Gulf Coast (“Dunk City”) teams catch lightning in a bottle and make the first weekend so much fun to watch. But oftentimes these teams start the tournament off with a bang on the first weekend only to have midnight strike right around the sweet 16 to send Cinderella home.
But there are a few teams that make it a little further and manage to extend their stay at the dance. One of the most memorable examples of this was George Mason’s unlikely and magical run to the 2006 Final Four as an at-large #11 seed. After losing to Hofstra in the semi-finals of their conference tournament, it wasn’t certain that they were going to get an at-large bid. But the committee gave them a chance after they went 27-8 on the year and they didn’t disappoint.
On their way to winning the region, they took down Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State, and Connecticut (in OT) before running into Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer, and the rest of the Florida Gators in the Final Four. It was a run that has inspired mid-majors for years and it is what made me first fall in love with the tournament.
I had the pleasure of talking with Tony Skinn, the starting Guard on that team (and current Assistant Coach for Louisiana Tech), for a few minutes today. He reflected on the amazing run and took us down memory lane. It makes you wonder who the next George Mason will be.
Mike Steenstra: It wasn’t all that common for a CAA team to get an at-large bid that year. Did you guys think you were going to be in the tournament?
Tony: Obviously, it’s been eleven years and to try to just remember what everyone thought was tough. I just thought we had a really good year and I want to say that we were in the top 60 in the RPI. We were one of the best teams in the country defensively but we had also had a match-up against Wichita State which at the time was called the “BracketBusters” game. It was kind of like the battle of the mid-majors. At the time we were doing well and so was Wichita so us playing them and going on the road to win there was a pretty good inclination of what was to come and put us in the top-25. Winning that game was huge for us. We thought we had a pretty good chance and got in.
Mike: In your conference, it seemed like Hofstra and UNC-Wilmington were both good schools that year. You guys lost to each of them once in the regular season. Did you have a sense the league was better in that year than it was previously?
Tony Skinn: Yeah. The powerhouses of the league at that time were UNC-Wilmington, George Mason, VCU, and Hofstra from what I can remember.
Mike: I forgot that VCU was in that league there
Tony Skinn: Yeah, they were CAA. They were the first to jump ship but they were in that league as well so obviously, they compete at a high level and that was our league.
Mike: You guys get to the tournament and you actually missed the first game against Michigan State. Were you watching that game from home or were you on the bench for that one and what do you remember from that?
Tony Skinn: Yeah, I was in a suit man. I was in a suit on the bench and I was just still elated for my guys getting there. Obviously after my incident, I didn’t want to cost those guys because they had a really good season and for something like that to overshadow that, I didn’t want that at all. So when we got in, I was just as excited as anybody else just watching the game from the sideline.
Mike: But obviously, a little disappointed to not play in the game that you earned?
Tony Skinn: No doubt man. But again, I love those guys that I played with and they stepped up. You know, you learn real quick that coaching from the sideline is a lot more stressful than playing, you know what I mean? But actually at the game, I knew we had a chance because we had played Michigan State the year before actually at the BB&T Classic and I thought we had a shot because we matched up well against them and early on we were playing well. You know how it is though, neutral site, you’re playing well and the crowd gets behind you.
Mike: Did you get a lot of press attention after that first game or did it not build up until you guys beat North Carolina?
Tony Skinn: It was still some press because that was the first game the program had ever won in the NCAA tournament. But obviously it became expanded the more we were winning but it was a very good win against a big time school so we got some attention.
Mike: Do you have any specific memories from the games in the tournament?
Tony Skinn: It was so many memories but one that I really remember is when we got back to campus, just the support of people that were just waiting on us. I just remember seeing all of those people waiting on us when we arrived back and if you didn’t know who George Mason was before that tournament, you knew then, you know what I mean? Basically just going everywhere and it was non-stop and people really pulled for us in the city of Fairfax.
Mike: I actually live pretty close by the campus and have heard from some friends that the tournament was just really good for the school financially and that run had a big impact on that area.
Tony Skinn: It was big time. Marketing-wise I can’t think of a better situation for the university. It was big time. Those memories are just unbelievable. When I reflect back on it 11 years later, I’m still tight with all of the guys and I talked to them all the time.
Mike: You guys ever play together any more?
Tony Skinn: Nah, you know I’m coaching now [at Louisiana Tech] so I’m trying to stay away from the court. We actually had a 10-year reunion last year and a bunch of us did get together and play and realized how bad we were (laughs).
Mike: Who has regressed the most?
Tony Skinn: I’m not going to put anyone out there like that! It might be myself, man.
Mike: But you played for a couple of years overseas after the run, right?
Tony Skinn: Yeah, I played for 7 years. I’m actually still in shape. But, when you have played at a high level and compare yourself to that, it’s tough. I’m in good shape for a normal person, you know? Not a high-level basketball player.
Mike: Do the young guys on your team talk about your final four run at all?
Tony Skinn: Yeah, those guys ask me questions all the time and I try to just relay to them how hard it is to win. People that win take it for granted and you just have to be really, really good to win. All you can do on an every day basis is just be the best that you can and win the day. As cliché as it sounds, that’s the approach that I live by and what I try to pass down to these guys.
Mike: Back to another Final Four question before I let you go. When you were in those games, does it feel like you are a part of this big thing called “March Madness” or does actually being at the game really just feel like another game at the time?
Tony Skinn: Yeah, for me I was just a 20 year old kid hoopin’.
Mike: Any other comments before I let you go?
Tony Skinn: Nah man. You took me down memory lane real quick and that was a good time!
Mike: Nice man! I’m surprised that you aren’t getting more calls about this.
Tony Skinn: You know, this time of the year I do tend to get stuff and last year, since it was 10 years I got a bunch of phone calls and e-mails last year. Obviously, it’s year eleven and it might be dying down a little bit.
Mike: Yeah, sure. I guess the kids now were like 7, 8, and 9 when all that was going on. I’m 29 so that was right when I was getting super into basketball so I remember this run really well. It was awesome. That must have been so much fun.
Tony Skinn: Yeah, man. It was.