CLEVELAND -- Vertrail Vaughns celebrated his 20th birthday Wednesday, then on Thursday had dinner at the Cleveland Chop House and Brewery with his George Mason teammates and celebrated some more. He ordered a New York strip. The wait staff surprised him with an impromptu rendition of Happy Birthday.
On Friday, George Mason went out and beat Villanova.
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So you know what came next, right?
"We went back to the Chop House last night," George Mason assistant Chris Caputo said Saturday afternoon. "Everybody ordered the same thing."
"They made them sing Happy Birthday to me again," Vaughns said. "It was Mike Morrison's idea."
So George Mason is a superstitious basketball team willing to do whatever the players think it might take to again advance in this NCAA tournament. They ate steaks at the Chop House and had Vaughns blow out candles before the Villanova game, and it worked. So they ate steaks at the Chop House again and had Vaughns blow out candles again in advance of their game with top-ranked Ohio State because, you know, why not?
Now to the real question: Can the team repeating meals and songs also repeat their school's magical 2006 run that featured the 11th-seeded Patriots beating Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and Connecticut to make the Final Four? That's the unavoidable storyline heading into George Mason's Sunday showdown with Ohio State here in the state of Ohio -- otherwise known as a place these Buckeyes have never lost.
Here are three more facts:
1. OSU hasn't lost all season to a team ranked outside of the latest top 16.
2. OSU's only two losses came at Wisconsin and at Purdue -- two places no visitors won this season.
3. OSU is an 11-point favorite over George Mason, according to Sportsbook.com.
In other words, there's no real reason -- not a talent reason, not an experience reason, not an on-the-court-this-season reason -- to believe the Patriots will record the type of upset in this NCAA tournament that Northern Iowa recorded over Kansas in last season's NCAA tournament. And yet because it's George Mason, folks around the country will watch and wonder and, in many cases, hope. Everybody loved that so-called Cinderella story from 2006 -- Luke Hancock, included. But when the star of George Mason's tournament-opening win over Villanova was asked what the word "Cinderella" meant to him, he paused, smiled and delivered a one-word answer: "Nothing."
"We get that comparison non-stop, all the time," Hancock later told me in the George Mason locker room at Quicken Loans Arena. "Getting compared to a team that did something so good is good. But we're trying to do our own thing and make our own name."
Beat Ohio State, consider it done. And though the odds of that happening are slim (and the Patriots know it), after talking to various George Mason coaches and players I got the sense they'll be among the least-surprised if they somehow do what almost nobody is predicting them to do or even come close to doing.
They're a confident and loose bunch, these guys.
They're not foolish enough to suggest they would've cruised through the Big Ten like the Buckeyes cruised through the Big Ten if given the opportunity, but they know they won the Colonial Athletic Association by two full games. One week ago that might not have meant much to you. But over the past four days Old Dominion (finished second in the CAA) has played Butler to the buzzer, and VCU (finished fourth in the CAA) has beaten a Pac-10 school (Southern California) and a Big East school (Georgetown) to advance to the Round of 32 of this NCAA tournament.
Does that mean George Mason is about to beat or challenge Ohio State?
But it's enough to make the players further believe in themselves.
So when you turn on your television before tipoff and see highlights of Jai Lewis and Tony Skinn leading George Mason past three traditional powers in 2006, use that as your inspiration to predict an upset, if you want. But know this: George Mason's current players won't draw a thing from that because none of them had anything to do with it. Instead, their belief will be rooted internally. They think the impossible is possible not because of what happened five years ago, but because they've already won 27 games and don't see any reason -- besides Jared Sullinger, perhaps -- why they can't add a 28th.
"We've been outmanned before," said junior Ryan Pearson. "We've just got to keep playing George Mason basketball."