Effingham Daily News, Effingham, IL

March 26, 2013

FGCU's rise worth broken bracket

By BRADEN LAYER
Daily News

---- — Ah, where do I start? Less than 72 hours after I predicted the Hoyas of Georgetown would win the national championship and Otto Porter would solidify himself as a top pick in this year's draft, John Thompson III was outcoached and Georgetown was outplayed by some no-name team down South.

Or at the very least, that's what my mind was telling me as I uncomfortably withstood the ridicules of all those I was watching the tournament with on that forgettable Friday night.

Then I began to think about the upset and this Florida Gulf Coast team that made me, as least momentarily, the butt of all jokes. After further examination, the Eagles upset may very well cost me a first-place finish in multiple brackets, but I think it just may be worth it.

I mean, let's think about this for a second. Florida Gulf Coast University, in Fort Myers, has had a shorter existence on this Earth than I have. The school was founded in 1991.

Currently at the tender old age of 22, I was already 20 years old before the Eagles even had the opportunity to appear on a March Madness bracket. They joined the ranks of Division I hoops in 2007 and are currently in their second year of tournament eligibility. To add to that, the Eagles punched their ticket to the dance this season, their first in the brief history of the program, because they won the Atlantic Sun tournament.

That's right, FGCU, which manhandled the mighty Hoyas and looked as calm as ever in their destruction of San Diego State on Sunday, wouldn't have earned a berth in the tournament if it weren't for late-season heroics. This same team lost five conference games, including now-puzzling setbacks to teams like East Tennessee State and Lipscomb. Neither are bottom dwellers, but the Eagles' schedule as a whole should have never prepared FGCU for this kind of magical run to the Sweet Sixteen.

But it did, which is what makes the fact that FGCU is the first No. 15 seed to survive opening weekend so compelling. In truth, I'm not sure which win was more shocking, more impressive to a writer that has seen upsets happen before, just never quite in this manner.

FGCU was the more aggressive and more athletic team against Georgetown. The roster looks chock-full of undersized and underdeveloped kids you expect to see playing pickup games at the local YMCA, yet they attack the basket and play well above the rim. The Eagles scored 28 points in the paint against the Hoyas, routinely soaring for a ground-shaking slam that ended any second-half momentum Georgetown could generate.

Yes, certainly, that win was one for the ages. With equal certainty, I expected that win to remain singular, and not become win(s). We've seen No. 15 seeds win before, it happened twice last March alone. But, (almost) always, that team doesn't have the stamina to body-up with the big boys one more time in the same weekend. They can't match the physicality, or simply can't rise to the occasion and meet the moment head-on. It becomes too big, and just like that, they wash away only to be seen for one month each year as some network counts down the best tournament upsets.

FGCU was the antithesis to the normal narrative. The Eagles never let the Aztecs take control on Sunday, refusing to surrender that one game-ending run that turns David into frenzied attack mode, hoisting up poor shots while Goliath enjoys point-blank dunks. Instead, FGCU went on this run, and again showed why they are nothing like the No. 15 seeds of old. The Eagles scored 44 points in the paint in game two, with a lot coming off of 17 forced turnovers.

In short, this team is nothing like any low-seed miracle-maker that has come before them. They have an incredible ability to play with no nerves, instead making their opponent feel increasingly nauseous as the underdogs stay in the game. FGCU's freakish talent, combined with its easygoing demeanor, is a model for success that plenty of other small college programs will surely look to emulate, but may never duplicate.

And sure, you all can now point out that this team beat the Hurricanes of Miami early in the regular season, and I should have known better being a sports journalist and all that jazz, but were you one of the 2 percent that picked the Eagles to win on Thursday? Were you one of the 0.95 percent that had Andy Enfield's team winning back-to-back games?

I was not, and I have no trouble admitting that. I may have lost my national champion, but I'm still having as much fun, if not more, watching the boys that toppled them.

Florida may very well be too tough of a test, with too much experience and a roster too hellbent on another Final Four under Billy Donovan for FGCU to continue the most ultimate of Cinderella stories, but the Eagles have burned me before, and I'm not stupid enough to bet against them again.