In theory, winning the second game should be easier for a 15 seed than winning the first. You just beat a 2 seed, a team with national championship aspirations, and face a 7 or 10 seed in the next game. Then why, until Florida Gulf Coast won on Sunday, had a 15 seed never done it?
Robert Jones, the associate head coach at Norfolk State, has a theory. You may recall Norfolk as the 15 seed that pulled off the biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history last year when they beat 2 seed Missouri. Two days later, Norfolk played Florida, a 7 seed, and lost 84-50.
In the 48 hours between the two games, the Norfolk basketball program was bombarded with media requests. Star player Kyle O’Quinn did close to 100 interviews, according to Jones, including singing “One Shining Moment” for the CBS studio crew. At the team breakfast the morning after the Missouri game, half the players were missing because of media obligations. Jones has talked with head coach Anthony Evans about doing things differently should Norfolk return to the Big Dance.
The media onslaught “took away from preparation for Florida,” Jones told me earlier today. “We never got a mental break; it was nonstop. We were trying to prepare for Florida but the phone never stopped ringing.” Jones says the team didn’t have to go as far as cancelling practice, but the time spent doing interviews could have been used to rest or watch film. By tip-off for the Florida game, “our guys were tired,” Jones said. He added that while the notoriety of the Tournament win was great for the program and the school, “as a competitor you want to win the next game. Now that you’ve won one, why not try to win five more? But you’re not allowed to prepare in a sense.”
It appears the demands on the Florida Gulf Coast University team have been just as great. Asked about the number of media appearances FGCU coach Andy Enfield has done over the past few days, Sports Information Director Patrick Pierson responded, “too many to count.”
Instead of melting under the sudden spotlight or succumbing to fatigue after upsetting Georgetown, the Eagles put on the most efficient offensive performance San Diego State had allowed all season to become the first 15 seed to reach the Sweet 16.
They’ve done it with a swagger that has captivated college basketball. Florida Gulf Coast has run its first two opponents out of the gym with a style of play that has earned their school the nickname “Dunk City.”*
*The word “dunk” appears 29 times in FGCU’s game notes for the SDSU game. Just below a reference to forward Chase Fieler’s second team all-conference selection is a reminder that he leads the team with 58 dunks.
There may be no person more familiar with how to stop this attack than Pete Froedden, an assistant coach at Lipscomb University. Lipscomb beat Florida Gulf Coast twice this season in the Atlantic Sun conference. Froedden told me today that his team didn’t allow nearly as many fast break points as Georgetown and San Diego State did, and that’s the key to slowing down the Eagles.
“Those points they get in transition are more than points—they create an energy for them,” Froedden said. “[When they can get out and dunk], they are better on defense, they run harder, they rebound harder. Everything is more passionate. Once you get them in a half court game you have a better opportunity to take away some of that energy.”
It all starts with point guard Brett Comer, who is most often seen at the beginning of the highlight-reel dunks, lobbing the ball towards the basket. Froedden is interested to see how Billy Donovan and the Gators handle Comer. The Eagles’ first two NCAA Tournament opponents have given him a lot of space to operate and he’s tallied 24 assists.
The Gators, in beating Norfolk last year, have ended Cinderella’s night before. Enfield and the Eagles have surely been watching tape, but they’ve also spent a lot more time with reporters than their northern Florida counterparts.
Of course there is no precedent for this matchup. Maybe Florida Gulf Coast did spend two days honoring media requests after beating San Diego State. That still gives them three days to prepare for a basketball game. All the pressure is on the heavily favored Gators, the 3 seed and a trendy a national championship pick. The Eagles look as loose as any team in the Tournament.
Perhaps that confidence comes from having played road games against schools from the ACC, Big East, and Big 12 earlier this season. Jones says playing in tough environments diminishes the awe factor when facing big-name schools in the NCAA Tournament. “Now on a neutral site, we’re almost salivating because we feel like we’ve got a fair shot,” he said.
It doesn’t get any fairer than Friday night in Arlington, TX, when Florida Gulf Coast University plays the University of Florida for a spot in the Elite 8.