FGCU is the NCAA - For Better or Worse
By Brett Ungashick
In the lead up to the tournament, I kept hearing about Tom Izzo's teams. Pundits described how they always "play the right way" and "win their one-on-one match-ups" and lavished a hundred other hard-nosed, BIG 10 superlatives on them.
I picked Michigan State to lose in the second round (I own an 11th percentile bracket on ESPN), and I've been cheering against them all tournament. It's not that I don't appreciate what Izzo has done with his Spartan teams, but I just hate when a sports cliche becomes narrative. Cliches are a lazy way for sports fans to describe things that they haven't thought a lot about. It's easier to put Michigan State in the Final Four and say "Tom Izzo is a great tournament coach" (cliche alert!) than it is to actually analyze what the team does well, and the match-ups they face.
Enter the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. "Best Sports Weekend Of The Year" - how many times do you think that phrase has been said this past week? If there's one thing I can't stand more than hyperbole becoming an actual descriptor, it's one that gives credit to the NCAA. The NCAA has had quite a recent history from their late Penn State punishments, to their debacle in Coral Gables that made The U look pious by comparison, to one of the greatest South Park clips in recent memory. We all despise the NCAA for 11 months out of the year, with great reason, but when March rolls around we climb back in for another ride. That is why this year, I wasn't ready to hand over my BSWOTY award to the NCAA without some deep thought. The problem is that the NCAA deserves the award. What can compete with 4 days and 48 win-or-go-home games? Tiger in his prime can't make the Masters that compelling. Christmas day NBA games usually have great match-ups, but they aren't playoff games. Hell, the NCAA might even have the runner-up for BSWOTY with New Year's bowl games (and yes, New Years counts as a weekend where I'm from).
Even though the NCAA deserves the BSWOTY award, I was ready to withhold it this year to spite the NCAA. I decided I was going to watch the basketball games through the hypocrisy and exploitation lens rather than the hysteria and excitement lens. I knew it was going to be tough, but I can't keep ripping on the NCAA only to be suckered in by their one shining moment. The first day started off slowly, not a lot of upsets, no buzzer beater games and tons of corporate sponsors paying millions of dollars that the athletes will never see - so far, so good.
Gonzaga and Southern tried to give us the first 16 over 1 game, but it never really felt like it was going to happen. Cal, Harvard and Oregon pulled off upsets later on, but they weren't March Madness level upsets - Oregon was grossly underseeded and playing in northern California against a freshman point guard, while Cal and Harvard beat the powerhouses of the Southwest - UNLV and New Mexico. Who knew those two weren't invincible?!
Friday could not have had a better start for me. Watching Marshall Henderson win an actual NCAA tournament game was enough justification to hate the whole tournament. I mean, if I have to watch him celebrate and play another game, this can't be considered a good sports weekend. La Salle beating K-State in a virtual road game was surprising to most people - and by most people, I mean everyone who didn't realize that Bruce Weber was K-State's coach. When K-State didn't use their final timeout so that they could attempt a game winner from behind the backboard, Bruce Weber wasn't sure what had gone wrong. (He has an under the table arrangement with Bill Self to lose every game against KU by 20 points in exchange for the ring that Self won him at Illinois).
That was the moment when I thought I had escaped the grasp of the NCAA, even their upsets couldn't get me past the skepticism of the entire event. I put on my best McKayla Maroney "not impressed" face and left the couch for some dinner. I expected what would come next - March Madness had to earn its name at some point. I just could not have predicted how enjoyable it would be.
3 minutes into the second half. That is when it is fair to start speculating on major upsets. Georgetown came out in the second half and started building momentum. Momentum is the cause of death of 3 out of 4 mid-major upset bids. Once the higher seeded team starts to get the "Big M" going, it usually is lights out for the upstarts. The low seed realizes the stage it is on and begins to wilt. The voices they tried to block out all week start creeping into their heads. It happens in nearly every upset bid, and every neutral fan that is pulling for the upset just hopes the Big M doesn't start building until it is too late.
With the game tied at 31 three minutes into the second half, it felt like another in the long list of valiant upset bids. Then, Florida Gulf Coast turned into Dunk City. Led by a coach who married a supermodel, FGCU started playing like the Harlem Globetrotters. I wouldn't have blamed them for folding in the second half and returning to Spring Break which, when your school is in Fort Myers, lasts for 18 weeks. Instead Florida Gulf Coast started to make Georgetown wonder if they belonged on the court. In a year with no heavyweight teams, FGCU is the only team in the country that looks like they feel entitled to a title. If you had never seen basketball before and watched this game, you would think that FGCU is the one who schedules teams like Georgetown in the beginning of the year, not the other way around.
Two minutes left and Georgetown had closed the gap to seven points. We all thought we had seen this before, the final two minutes where the low seed's lead keeps shrinking and we all hold our breath and hope the clock ticks away before the inevitable happens. Instead, there was this. I cannot remember the last time I literally jumped out of my seat watching a play. I've "ooh"-ed and "ahh"-ed plenty, but that dunk got me out of my seat like I was a Clippers player watching Brandon Knight's death (R.I.P. Brandon). There was no turning back from there. Florida Gulf Coast wasn't losing after that dunk. Choking away games is for underdogs and unconfident teams, FGCU is neither of those.
And there it was; that slimy, dirty, good-for-nothing institution known as the NCAA was able to bring me sheer joy on a Friday night. Florida Gulf Coast is the NCAA for better or for worse. The Florida Gulf Coast basketball team was able to market their university better than any paid administrator had done in the past 15 years (google searches for the university were up 430% after the game) but the kids responsible for bringing in millions of tuition dollars will see nothing. Do they deserved to be paid for their service to the university? Absolutely. But was I thinking about that when I watched Chase Fieler throw down that alley oop? Nope. Touché NCAA. I'll climb into your roller coaster for another ride.