INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- Before the madness began, before the world came calling to their campus, hardly anyone outside of Fairfax, Va., knew anything about George Mason's Patriots.
Let's just say their fan base has expanded -- by millions.
They are now America's team, ball-playing Patriots with a purpose.
Overcoming impossibly large odds, they've knocked off some of college basketball's biggest powers en route to the Final Four. And now that they've arrived, the Patriots want to stay as long as they can.
"We're happy to be here, no doubt," said senior guard Lamar Butler. "At the same time, this is a business trip. We didn't come here to visit and take pictures. We came here to play Florida and win."
Already the most surprising guest to crash a Final Four party, George Mason (27-7) plays Florida (31-6) in Saturday's first national semifinal. The winner will meet either LSU (27-8) or UCLA (31-6) on Monday night for the national title.
George Mason, national champions. Go ahead, say it again and try not to shake your head or giggle.
It could happen, though. It could almost be expected after seeing how the 11th-seeded Patriots dispatched of Michigan State, defending NCAA champ North Carolina, Wichita State and top-seeded Connecticut in the past two weeks.
The Patriots believe. At this point, shouldn't we all?
Coach Jim Larranaga's team began the NCAA tourney as the longest of longshots, among the also-rans in the 64-team field. But in a little more that two weeks they've become adorable underdogs -- the kind everyone pulls for.
"Nobody knows us," said Larranaga, the Patriots' likable and loquacious leader. "We've been flying under the radar screen. We were not supposed to make the tournament. When we did, we were not supposed to beat Michigan State. When we did, we were not supposed to beat North Carolina.
"When we did, there might have been some believers that we might beat Wichita State. We were the lower seed and underdog. For sure, we were not supposed to beat Connecticut and be here in Indianapolis."
And, here they are, some real life "Hoosiers" who have already made history and want to make more.
On Friday, the Patriots practiced in the RCA Dome for the first time, taking the floor before the three other semifinalists. As they went through drills, some of the players glanced into the stands.
"There were probably more people at practice than at our games," said junior guard Gabe Norwood, who drew gasps with a few vicious dunks. "I know I've never practiced in front of 10,000 people before. To see everybody is just wild."
But as the Patriots soaked in the atmosphere and their pep band played Stevie Wonder's "Superstition," there didn't appear to be any wide-eyed wonderment, bewildered stares or a hint of shock.
Just as it has done since getting a controversial at-large bid, George Mason, a team that couldn't even win the Colonial Athletic Association and twice lost to Hofstra, looked like it belonged.
"What you see is what you get with them," Tom O'Connor, the school's athletic director said as the Patriots did layups. "They're a fun-loving group. They're not tight at all. I don't
think they're in awe of this. I think they're here to play another basketball game, and that's the beauty of it.
"Jim is here to coach another game, and that's just beautiful."
While George Mason's warm-and-fuzzy fairy tale has captured the hearts of sports fans nationwide, the Gators feel like they've heard enough of it.
"Everybody wants us to lose," Florida forward Corey Brewer said. "But that doesn't mean much. I kind of want to be the bad guy. Everybody wants them to win. They're going to have the crowd behind them.
"It's time to kiss Cinderella and send her home."
The Gators are a pretty fair story themselves.
After losing his top three scorers from last season, Florida coach Billy Donovan began the season with an unranked and inexperienced team given little chance of competing in the
The consensus was that they were talented but too young. Wait 'til next year became the catch phrase in Gainesville before this year even began.
Well, the future came early. The young Gators -- they start four sophomores -- matured as the year progressed, and after Donovan tweaked their defensive scheme following a loss to Alabama on Feb. 26, they went 9-0 in March.
Florida will enjoy a huge size advantage up front against the Patriots, whose 6-foot-7 forwards Jai Lewis and Will Thomas will have to contend with 6-11 Joakim Noah, 6-9 Al Horford and 6-8 Corey Brewer.
By now, the Gators are familiar with George Mason's knack for felling giants.
"Size doesn't really mean a thing," said Noah, who has led the Gators at both ends during the tourney. "In this tournament, you can't underestimate your opponent. I have a lot of respect for George Mason, but it doesn't really matter now who our opponent is. We're just happy to be in this place."
As are the Patriots, who are relishing every second of a weekend they could barely dream was possible.
"I've never even been inside of a dome," said Butler, who playfully peeked out from behind a curtain while Larranaga spoke to the media. "I've played football in a basketball gym, but never basketball inside a football arena."
A few minutes later, Butler realized that his name card had toppled from the dais.
"Can I have my name tag?" he asked the press conference moderator.
"After the tournament is over," he was told.
The Patriots want to put that off as long as they can.