Florida Gulf Coast continues exhilarating ride through March
PHILADELPHIA -- The night began with the Chopper City Juke, a frenetic pregame ritual in which members of the Florida Gulf Coast University team encircle senior guard Sherwood Brown following the introduction of starting lineups, lock their arms together and spin wildly around Brown. In the middle of his teammates, Brown tears off his headband and flings his dreadlocks in mad swirls, imitating a dance he learned in his hometown of Orlando and which was taken public (in stadiums and on Madden) by NFL running back Chris Johnson of the Tennessee Titans. Brown shouts increasingly louder, but nobody comprehends and nobody tries. "He's just basically screaming," says junior forward Chase Fieler. "No words." And it isn't about content, it's about emotion.
The night ended with a valuable bench guard from Switzerland by way of a prep school in Massachusetts sprinting 20 rows into the seats at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, where Christophe Varidel fell into the arms of his brother, Yannick, secured a red-and-white Swiss flag and ran back into the floor of the arena like an Olympian who has just won a medal. And even later, when FGCU guard Bernard Thompson, a spidery 6-2 sophomore who had five steals and a thunderous late-game dunk, leaned into a press conference microphone and said, "Dunk city is coming to Arlington, so everybody be ready."
Scarcely 48 hours earlier, FGCU had taken the floor against mighty Georgetown of the Big East Conference in the school's first NCAA tournament game. The Eagles were a No. 15 seed playing a No. 2 seed, but much more than that, they were a March Madness media commodity, a story to suck up airtime, bytes and column inches. They were a college in southwestern Florida that had been accepting students for only 16 years, whose coach, Andy Enfield, is a successful software entrepreneur married to a fashion model and whose players were among the faceless overlooked and underrecruited, never fated to impact the sport. They are all of those things still, an unimaginably compelling story in the early spring of the year, but as Sunday night turned into Monday morning, and the arena was broken down for other games with other teams, they had become much more than that.
The Eagles (26-10) ran over San Diego State, 81-71, becoming the first No. 15 seed in the history of the NCAA Tournament to win two games and reach the Sweet 16; they will play Southeastern Conference champion Florida on Friday night in Arlington, Texas -- hence Thompson's reference -- in a delicious matchup between the long-powerful and the nouveau riche of Sunshine State basketball. FGCU did it with a blistering 17-0 run over five and a half minutes of the second half, a tear that was very much like the 21-2 streak that had obliterated (and frankly, embarrassed) Georgetown on Friday night. On 11 consecutive possessions, San Diego State (which finished the season with a 23-11 record) failed to score. On eight of those possessions, FGCU answered with baskets, applying relentless defensive pressure and attacking the basket with an urgency and freedom seldom seen in the modern somnambulant college game, where coaches call halfcourt sets from the sidelines, defense is king and scores sometimes barely creep into the 50s. It was a breathtaking run that left the arena quivering and fans of both Duke and Creighton -- who played in the second game of the night -- hopelessly converted.
"Those moments, when we play like that," said Varidel, who came off the bench to score 11 points and made three three-point baskets, "I call those 'blank moments,' where it just happens and you're on a roll and not much is on your mind. It's what every athlete trains for in his career and tonight we had one of those as a team." It was such an artful description, splendidly encapsulating the explosive FGCU takeover, which was almost as if plucked from a dream.
Six times previously in the history of the NCAA tournament, a No. 15 seed had upset a No. 2 seed in its first game. All six times, the 15 seed had lost its second game, and only Coppin State, in 1997, had been close, losing to No. 10 seed Texas by one point. It was this historical roadblock that peppered FGCU's meetings at its team hotel Sunday. "We wanted to make history, that's what we talked about," said Fieler, the 6-8 forward who YouTubed Georgetown in the closing minutes with a soaring lob dunk. "We knew none of the other 15 seeds had ever made it to the Sweet 16. We talked about at tape study, we talked about at dinner, we talked about in the locker room."
In four hours of basketball, Florida Gulf Coast has done what is nearly impossible in modern sports: It has awakened wonder among a populace addicted to snark and seemingly immune to joy. The Eagles -- and surely their spectacularly unconventional coach -- have shaken a sport turned stodgy by over-management, by refusing to apply brakes to their basketball or their words. (Fieler had just one dunk in the game, and when presented with this statistic postgame, he said, "We don't want to dunk every time; the rims aren't that strong.").
Amid the delirium of the FGCU locker room after the win, Amanda Marcum Enfield sat on a bench between players. Ten years ago, she was a fashion model on the covers of Vogue, Maxim and Elle, when she met and began dating a (then) former basketball coach-turned-software entrepreneur. They were married in 2004, and then Andy Enfield took his wife to Tallahassee, where he became an assistant coach at Florida State for five years and they started a family together (they now have two daughters and a son). In 2011, Enfield was hired as the head coach at FGCU. And here Sunday night, the husband's team made history. "It's just surreal, " Amanda said. "I always thought this could happen, but now the fact that it has happened, it's just such a cool thing." She remembered the moment late Sunday afternoon, just before the FGCU bus left its hotel for the trip to the arena, when Andy found a quiet place by himself. "I know my husband," said Amanda. "He's been great with all of this, but he always takes that little bit of time to himself."
Sophomore point guard Brett Comer, the brightest among a handful of FGCU breakout stars on the weekend, had 14 assists and just three turnovers for the Eagles, including two sensational lobs to 6-9 redshirt sophomore forward Eric McKnight, who transferred from Iowa State, and took a recruiting call from Enfield while the coach was in a hospital room with his wife shortly after the birth of their son, Marcum, who will turn two years old on the night of the national championship game. "I don't even watch Brett when he's coming down with the ball," McKnight said. "I just watch the ball and go get it."
Comer plays with a rare fearlessness, darting into traffic for teardrop shots and throwing lobs at the slightest opening. (Enfield says the Eagles throw lobs endlessly in practice and despises guards throwing "hand-to-hand passes to tall athletes," because there's so much congestion at that level and it takes such little advantage of the player's height). Yet Comer's sweetest look on Sunday night came just before the start of the decisive run, when he dropped a no-look pass to a trailing Fieler on a fast break, shades of Pete Maravich. Immediately after San Diego finally stopped FGCU's run, Comer assisted on consecutive fast-break lob slams to McKnight. FGCU fans began chanting: FG-CU, FG-CU, and later, Sweet Sixteen, Sweet Sixteen.
Nearly as compelling as Comer's artistry in the backcourt are Brown's and Thompson's tenacity. Brown, who walked on at FGCU two years before Enfield arrived, finished with a team-high eight rebounds, shot 6-for-8 from the floor and scored 16 points. Thompson, who once took jump shots by pushing the ball forward with his thumbs, scored a game-high 23 points. Five Eagles were in double figures, and McKnight had nine. They are a deep and dangerous team that losing coach Steve Fisher first clumsily called "Florida State," and then likened to the Hank Gathers/Bo Kimble Loyola Marymount fast-breaking juggernaut of 1990. (It is bewildering that Lipscomb, which finished with a 12-18 record, beat FGCU twice during the regular season. "It's a good thing we're not playing them in the Sweet 16," said FGCU fifth-year senior Eddie Murray).
They lingered on the court Sunday night, popping shirts, hugging sweat-soaked bodies together and pointing to the fans who followed them here and could never have expected this. Creighton had to wait to begin its layup lines. The ride will last another five days or another seven or maybe much longer than that, but already the footprints are sunk much deeper than that. They are fresh air, blowing through the game, making it ever more alive.