NCAA tournament: Intrastate showdown takes big stage
ARLINGTON, Texas — A week ago, Florida Gulf Coast University was just another overlooked No. 15 seed — a longshot at best to nearly everyone eyeballing their NCAA tournament brackets.
Now the Eagles are the high-flying show from “Dunk City” in the round of 16, the darlings of the South Regional and a bracket-busting team everybody is talking about even when surrounded by former national champions Michigan, Kansas and Florida.
“Things have changed dramatically,” FGCU coach Andy Enfield said.
“The way we looked at it, we did make history. ... We feel like we shocked the world,” said Brett Comer, the guard with 22 points and 24 assists in two NCAA games. “Nobody picked us to beat Georgetown, or San Diego State, for sure. We’re going to prepare for Florida the same way. We’re going to try to win again.”
Florida Gulf Coast (26-10) plays the SEC regular-season champion Gators (28-7), the No. 3 seed in the South, tonight. The improbable intrastate showdown is magnified even more at Cowboys Stadium, where the court is on a raised stage and below giant high-definition screens that had the players’ attention Thursday.
“Even if you make big plays, it’s hard to get a good angle on that TV, you have to stand right on the edge (of the court),” Eagles forward Chase Fieler said. “We’ll have to run more toward the sideline to see it.”
This group doesn’t need one of the world’s largest HD displays to appear larger than life, though any highlight dunks sure will look good on the big screens.
How about a few shots up there of their sun-soaked campus in Fort Myers, Fla., with its manmade lakes and a beach? The school’s first classes were held in August 1997, making FGCU younger than the players who have put it on a national stage.
“I never heard of Florida Gulf Coast until actually I started to visit the school and to attend it,” admitted Sherwood Brown, the dreadlocked showman who leads the Eagles in scoring (15.6 points per game) and rebounds (6.6 rpg) and is their only senior starter.
After their two NCAA tournament victories in Philadelphia, the Eagles arrived home early Monday morning. All the players were in back in class a few hours after that, though the atmosphere had certainly changed on the campus with an enrollment of 13,468.
“It was a busy week, just with the attention and the media being around. And the students were excited about what’s going on and talking to us,” Fieler said.
“But now we’re in Dallas, and we can feel the game starting to get closer and closer,” Enfield said. “Just like the Georgetown and San Diego State games got closer and closer. And they’re very, very focused.”
While Florida Gulf Coast was back home getting accolades and trying to prepare among a pep rally-type atmosphere, the Gators spent the entire week in Texas. They stayed in the Lone Star State instead of going back and forth after beating Minnesota on Sunday in Austin, about three hours away.
The Eagles are in the round of 16 in only their second season being eligible for the NCAA tournament. Florida, a state school with nearly 50,000 students, has a roster loaded with NCAA experience.
It is the first time that two teams from the same state have meet in this round of the NCAA tournament.
Florida, which won consecutive national titles in 2006 and 2007, has been to regional finals each of the last two years. But this is the last chance for seniors Kenny Boynton, Erik Murphy and Mike Rosario to get a championship of their own.
“We remember the pain it caused for us last year,” Boynton said. “I think we used it to learn. ... We’ve been close. And our goal is to get further this year.”
The Gators, Kansas, Marquette and Ohio State are the only teams in the NCAA round of 16 for the third season in a row. It is the first time Florida has done that.
Yet, most of the attention is going to the smaller school about 250 miles away that the Gators have played only once before. That was a 94-60 Florida win at home in 2008, when Florida Gulf Coast was in only its second season of Division I competition.
Florida Gulf Coast did play this season against the third Florida team that made it to the round of 16. The Eagles won 63-51 at home Nov. 13 against Miami, the ACC regular-season and tournament champion and No. 2 seed in the East Regional.
Florida presents quite a challenge, ranked second nationally allowing only 54 points a game. But neither Georgetown or San Diego State allowed much more than that.
FGCU scored 78 against the Hoyas, including a 21-2 run, and scored 17 in a row in the second half against the Aztecs on the way to 81 points.
“We’re playing against a really, really good team that’s playing as well as anybody in the country right now. And they’ve had some incredible runs,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “I know there are a lot of nice stories out there. But we’ve got focus on the stuff that we need to do going into the game.”