The surprising run that George Mason University made to the 2006 Final Four is the reason this book will be a hit, but it’s not the reason the book was written, and it’s not the only story the book has to tell.
Michael Litos has long chronicled the travails and successes of the Colonial Athletic Association in his blog, titled The CAA: Life as a Mid Major. And this account of one season inside the CAA continues that tradition, giving partisans and outsiders alike a portal into the passion that galvanizes college basketball outside of the elite conferences. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll know a great deal more about NCAA hoops than you did before.
The stars of this book are the coaches. Litos’ narrative follows the CAA season in general, but four personalities really stand out. There’s Jeff Capel, the VCU coach who parlayed mid-major success into a job in the Big 12; ODU’s Blaine Taylor, the preseason favorite who overcame adversity to reach the final four of the NIT; Tom Pecora, the native New Yorker who has made a powerhouse out of Hofstra; and, of course, Jim Larranaga, the man who took his underdog GMU Patriots to Indianapolis before finally bowing to the eventual National Champion. It’s fascinating to see how each man uses his own unique background and philosophy to build a winning team.
There’s solid research behind the personal portraits, however. One early chapter details the economics of Mid-Majordom, which are fraught with “buy games” and miniscule budgets. The picture of a vicious cycle emerges: if a mid-major team gets good enough to beat a major foe, the major foe will never schedule them, and they languish in the RPI basement. That means few NCAA tournament appearances, and no chance to improve or play meaningful games.
The nits must be picked, of course. There is a sense about the book that it was rushed to print, which is perhaps understandable given the unexpected window of opportunity surrounding the GMU triumph. But there are odd word choices and several typos throughout the book. The most baffling, and yet the most hilarious, are the persistent references to college basketball analyst Greg Gumbel as Greg Gumball. The devil is in the details, as they say.
But everything rich and enjoyable about this book is in the details as well. Mr. Litos’ behind-the-scenes access uncovers some poignant moments: VCU guard Jesse Pellot Rosa mentoring an autistic athlete; The Monarchs’ struggles with grief, disease, and violence; Pecora’s respect for an opponent who has just beaten him; and Larranaga’s famous grit in deciding to sit a star player for the first game of the NCAA’s. Those intimate moments illustrate Coach Pecora’s philosphy that “(E)verything we do is a microcosm of life”. It’s never just a game.
There’s something about this book that resonates a little more than similar in-season studies. Previous books have tried to find the human dimension behind household names like Bobby Knight, Larry Brown, and Dean Smith. But no amount of deconstruction can make a legend seem like the guy next door. In Cinderella, most of us are getting to know the players, coaches, and administrators for the first time, and they are indelibly human. The reader rides the roller coaster, too.
Anyone can debate the merits of the glamor teams. If you really want to sound like a college basketball savant during this year’s NCAA tournament, you owe it to yourself to read this book.