FAIRFAX, Va., March 27 — George Mason stood in the center of the campus that bears his name wearing a green-and-gold cape and other mementos of victory — a T-shirt, signs of support and, later in the day, green and gold balloons tied to his wrist. A proud bronze statue had gone schlock, and people stopped to take pictures.
Inside the bookstore at the Johnson Center, hundreds lined up to pay $18.95 for one of the 2,000 shirts that had arrived proclaiming George Mason a Final Four team. In the food court, a replay of Sunday's 86-84 overtime victory against Connecticut played on a screen high overhead. Near the back, Folarin Campbell, a sophomore guard on the team, signed autographs. Two weeks ago, he rarely got a second glance.
"I think we kind of woke George Mason up," he said.
This sleepy and leafy suburban campus of nearly 30,000 students, tucked in the rolling hills about 20 miles from Washington, is reveling in its instant fame. Inside Patriot Circle, the road that rings most of campus, there is a sense of having finally been discovered.
Outside Patriot Circle, however, George Mason is being portrayed as the endearing little college that could, with the basketball team that can.
Those portrayals are a stretch. George Mason is not an sports powerhouse, but it is not exactly Hickory High from "Hoosiers," either.
"It's because people don't know us," said Tom O'Connor, the athletic director, standing in a stylish basketball locker room in a 10,000-seat on-campus arena that is about to receive $15 million in improvements. He oversees 120 full-time employees and a $10 million annual budget.
There are haves and have-nots in college basketball, and George Mason has garnered celebrity status for being the first so-called have-not to make the Final Four since 1979. The differences between it and the other teams in the Final Four — Florida, Louisiana State and U.C.L.A. — can be easily charted by talent, money and tradition.
After all, most of George Mason's players were overlooked by bigger-name universities. And George Mason's athletics budget, not supported by a football program, pales compared with those of Florida ($63 million), L.S.U. ($55 million) and U.C.L.A. ($42 million).
George Mason's coach, Jim Larranaga, makes about $200,000 a year. According to each university, Florida's Billy Donovan makes about $1.7 million a year, L.S.U.'s John Brady about $715,000, and U.C.L.A.'s Ben Howland about $920,000.
In other words, George Mason represents one-fourth of the Final Four, and its biggest story. But it also represents only about 5.9 percent of the athletics budgets of the universities taking part, and just 5.7 percent of the head-coaching salaries.
The other three universities in the Final Four have combined for 164 team national championships. George Mason has two — women's soccer in 1985 and men's indoor track and field in 1996.
George Mason aspires to raise its sports programs, but has no illusions of becoming Florida, L.S.U. or U.C.L.A. "We know our niche," O'Connor said.
One thing George Mason would like a larger slice of, however, is exposure. It is the catalyst for talent and the precursor to money. And a trip to the Final Four is free advertising for a university that, on some fronts, is making its national debut.
Larranaga sat in his large office Monday afternoon speaking with reporters. He joked that it had never been so crowded; people spilled out the door, where enlarged copies of last week's Sports Illustrated cover, featuring guard Lamar Butler, leaned against a wall, waiting to be hung.
Someone asked if Larranaga would be out recruiting if not for the Final Four.
"I am recruiting right now," he said.
He received a telephone message from a prospective recruit's mother after Sunday's game. "I watched the game," Larranaga said the woman said. "It was awesome. Go Coach L! Go George Mason!"
Just like that, George Mason had credibility.
"It's why the high majors have so much success in the recruiting area," Larranaga said. "You become familiar."
That is all the university wants — to be more familiar. Thanks to its basketball team, it is being introduced to a broad audience. On Sunday night the "Today" show had a camera crew at the arena, the Patriot Center, where 8,000 people welcomed the team home. A university that rarely receives more than casual mentions in the local news media had television trucks parked around campus. Cameras and reporters crowded around the cash register at the bookstore to catch the mayhem of T-shirt sales.
On the second floor of the Johnson Center, the door of the admissions office was covered with news articles about the basketball team. Inside, the dean of admissions, Andrew Flagel, had a succession of media interviews.
On Saturday, 300 prospective students took a tour of the campus — about triple the typical number, Flagel said. The phone was ringing about once a minute; it normally might ring once every five.
Flagel, like others at George Mason, sees a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to sell the university.
"There is no way an institution of higher learning can responsibly spend the type of money it would take to replicate this type of exposure," he said.
Flagel is quick with the pitch — George Mason is the largest state university of Virginia, and students come from every state and 140 countries. He listed the better-known departments. He talked about George Mason researchers who have garnered acclaim for their roles in searching for cures for cancer and Alzheimer's disease, among others.
"Now, I hate to compare them," Flagel said, almost incredulous at the words he was about to say. "But if they cured cancer or Alzheimer's, the attention we'd receive might compare to the Final Four."
Outside, hundreds of students watched the replay of the game. Hundreds of others waited in line for T-shirts. And a bronze man stood in the sunshine, dressed for a party.