I can’t remember an NCAA Tournament team delivering a louder message than Florida Gulf Coast University did during their two games in Philadelphia this weekend. It was pretty straightforward, too. Play like you don’t have a care in the world, and the world may soon care about you.
Florida Gulf Coast — a school that held its first classes in 1997, that has spent just 591 days with full Division 1 status, that has dorms that overlook a lakeside beach that’s just a few minutes from the Gulf of Mexico in Fort Myers, Fla. — is the runaway darling of this year’s March Madness. The team played with a loose swagger that, in all seriousness, was downright inspiring.
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You’ve never heard of our school? We’re the no. 15 seed and facing no expectations? Fine, we’ll just go out there and jump out of the gym, throw alley-oops passes all over the place, and love every single minute of it.
To wit: with just under two minutes left in the team’s game against #2-seed Georgetown on Friday, the Hoyas had just cut Florida Gulf Coast’s lead to 65-58. Instead of playing “disciplined” basketball and milking the clock to protect their lead, the Eagles rushed the ball up court. Florida Gulf Coast point guard Brett Comer, who finished that game with ten assists, tossed a lob pass that had every coach in America — armchair or otherwise — screaming at their television sets. WHAT ARE YOU DOING?
But Chase Fieler – this weekend’s Dr. Dunkenstein, as he had a few highlight-reel slams — stretched his arms out like a condor, and flushed home the alley-oop, essentially sealing the game. Down the stretch of Florida Gulf Coast’s 81-71 second round victory over seventh-seeded San Diego State Sunday, the Eagles benched all caution, even with a comfortable cushion. The Eagles continued to push the tempo and put on a dunking display. (Comer finished the game with 14 assists).
The game was great fun, for everyone not associated with San Diego State. Florida Gulf Coast’s players waved their arms constantly to pump up the crowd, serenaded their coach, Andy Enfield — who in his pre-coaching life helped start a software company which at one point was valued at more than $100 million (he still has a stake), and is married to a model — with chants of “Andy, Andy,” and generally treated basketball like a game. Not chess. Or church.
Florida Gulf Coast made history, becoming the first 15th-seeded team to make a Sweet 16. The Eagles — athletic budget, $9.2 million — face Florida — athletic budget, $107.2 million — on Friday night in the South Regional semi-final in Dallas. Against Georgetown, Florida Gulf Coast looked like the Big East team, with Comer zipping through defenses, Sherwood Brown shooting the lights out, and Fieler flying.
Other Cinderellas are crashing this year’s Big Dance, which unlike last year’s, has no dominant team (Kentucky, which featured six NBA draft picks on the roster, should have — and did — win the 2012 title). No. 12 Oregon advanced to the Sweet 16, but the Ducks are from the Pac-12, a major conference, and should have been seeded much higher. LaSalle, a 13-seed, gutted out two wins, against Kansas State and Ole Miss. Ninth-seeded Wichita State, which faces LaSalle on Thursday in the Sweet 16, dominated Pitt and pushed around top-seeded Gonzaga.
So that means one of those teams – LaSalle or Wichita St. — will be one game away from the Final Four come Saturday. If you love “mid-majors” in the Final Four, that’s terribly exciting. But after watching Florida Gulf Coast run wild this weekend, the Eagles look more likely than the others to make it all the way to Atlanta. And just imagine what a blast that would be.