Back on Jan. 12, Florida Gulf Coast’s basketball team looked like anything but destiny’s darling.
The Eagles were limping out of Johnson City, having just been beaten by an East Tennessee State team that would go on to finish 10-22. The 85-75 defeat left Florida Gulf Coast 12-7, just another seemingly mediocre-at-best team in the Atlantic Sun Conference.
Fast forward to late March, and suddenly the Eagles are the talk of the entire country, perhaps the biggest Cinderella ever in this ball called the NCAA tournament. They’re the first 15th-seeded team to ever make the Sweet 16 and they’re enjoying every minute of it.
In just the second season in which they’ve been eligible for the postseason, the Eagles beat Mercer in the A-Sun tournament championship game to earn the league’s automatic NCAA bid. Winning the A-Sun tournament and winning in the NCAA tournament have proven to be two entirely different things.
A team from the league hadn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 2001 when Lefty Driesel’s Georgia State team beat Wisconsin in overtime. Considering Florida Gulf Coast wasn’t even the regular-season champion, there was little indication to think this would be the year the A-Sun made some noise.
The Eagles were swept by Lipscomb, a team that finished 12-18 and made the A-Sun tournament as the No. 8 seed. Throw in the loss to ETSU, and Florida Gulf Coast’s resume -- even with an early-season win over Miami -- didn’t appear overly impressive.
The Eagles won all three A-Sun tournament games by double digits. In their closest game in Macon, they beat North Florida by 10, the same margin of victory they’ve had against Georgetown and San Diego State during their NCAA run.
Now, Florida Gulf Coast is 26-10 and its coach, Andy Enfield, is the new poster boy for success.
Enfield has an awful lot going for him these days, and not all of it is because of the NCAA tournament. His wife Amanda is a former supermodel who has graced the cover of Maxim. He’s loaded after helping start a company that was worth more than $100 million when he left it. His name is still in the NCAA record book for career free throw percentage after he shot 92.5 percent while at Division III Johns Hopkins.
Yes, life is good if you’re Andy Enfield.
If Enfield is the real most interesting man in the world, A-Sun Commissioner Ted Gumbart is one of the happiest.
“It’s tremendous,” Gumbart said Monday morning from the Philadelphia airport, where he was waiting out a snow-related delay. “From a conference standpoint, you can put all the plans you want together, but until a coach and a team back it up, it’s just plans.
“We’re as proud as we could be, and we relish the opportunity to have the A-Sun mentioned as part of the best national story. It’s bigger than sports. It’s all over everything. It’s great to be part of history. It is what makes the NCAA tournament the unique event it is. It can capture the nation with a school that most of them didn’t know about. That’s the magic.”
Another A-Sun member, Mercer, won the CIT postseason tournament last year and beat Tennessee in the NIT last week. The Bears lost 90-71 at BYU in the second round on Monday night.
Florida Gulf Coast hasn’t played like a mid-major underdog, showing an incredible amount of confidence in its first two games and using huge second-half runs in the rousing victories. The Eagles out-scored Georgetown 21-2 at one point and San Diego State 17-0.
San Diego State coach Steve Fisher, who knows a thing or two about swagger after coaching the Fab Five at Michigan to back-to-back national-championship games, says Florida Gulf Coast is no fluke.
“They play with a swagger, and they have a right to do that,” Fisher said. “You can have that look and feel, but you have to compete and play to earn your spurs, and they’ve done that.”
The Eagles have run and dunked their way to the two wins, creating the name “Dunk City” along the way. They’ve danced and celebrated like they’ve stolen something. It’s been fun to watch.
Point guard Brett Comer has had 24 assists in the two games, and it only seems as though they all have come on alley-oop dunks.
Florida Gulf Coasts’s amazing run continues Friday night when it takes on Florida in the South Regional semifinals at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
While every A-Sun school except Northern Kentucky will share in the money Florida Gulf Coast is earning from the tournament, none will benefit as much from the exposure.
The school was already a winner even before beating Georgetown in its opener, and Enfield talked openly about the publicity playing in the NCAA tournament would generate for the 16-year-old school in Fort Myers, Fla.
“We used this week as a method to get our name out there nationally,” Enfield said shortly after the pairings were announced. “To hear Florida Gulf Coast, FGCU, on a national scale, it means more than just our basketball program. It’s something for the whole FGCU community.
“When we first got here two years ago, they thought we were a junior college. We made recruiting calls to players, parents or high school coaches. They thought we were Gulf Coast Community College, which is in the panhandle. We’re a Division I university and we play in the Atlantic Sun Conference.”
The next time he’s out recruiting, Enfield won’t have to clarify anything. All he’ll have to say is two words: “Sweet 16.”
That is, unless his Eagles continue to fly this week. Then it will get even easier.