NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Want to know how to beat Florida Gulf Coast?
Just ask Lipscomb University coach Scott Sanderson, whose team beat this year’s NCAA Tournament Cinderella sensation not once, but twice during the Atlantic Sun Conference regular season. But depending upon who’s doing the asking, you might not get the response you want nor necessarily need.
“I have been about as vague as you can be about those answers,” said 14-year Lipscomb coach Sanderson, whose team won only a dozen games this season, but two just happened to come against conference rival Florida Gulf Coast.
Yes, that Florida Gulf Coast, the Fort Myers, Fla.-based Division I recent newcomer that became the first No. 15 seed to advance to the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA tournament with wins over South Region No. 2 seed Georgetown (78-68) and No. 7 San Diego State (81-71) last weekend.
According to Sanderson, he missed a call from the Georgetown staff of coach John Thompson to help scout the Eagles prior to the second-round game Friday. And he didn’t hear from coach Steve Fisher’s staff at San Diego State before the third-round game Sunday.
Up next for Florida Gulf Coast (24-10) on Friday in the South Regional semifinal in Dallas is No. 3 Florida (26-7). And Sanderson — the son of legendary former Alabama coach Wimp Sanderson — doesn’t expect any calls, either, from Florida coach Billy Donovan or his staff to secure any information about the upstart Eagles.
“I am not going to sit here and tell you exactly what we did,” Sanderson said. “(Donovan) has four days to prepare for Florida Gulf Coast. I am sure he is watching games in which they got beat to figure out what is the best thing for them to do with their personnel to beat them.”
OK, coach, but we’re not a coach preparing against the Eagles for Friday’s game. So, do tell, how did Lipscomb beat Florida Gulf Coast twice this season, first 87-78 in overtime on Jan. 17 on the road and then 84-74 on Feb. 16 here back home in Allen Arena?
“Teams are letting them play in the open floor,” Sanderson said of the first two NCAA tourney games. “If you let (sophomore point guard Brett) Comer get the ball in the open floor with all the alley-oop dunks and create spacing, it is going to be very difficult. I don’t care who they’re playing, especially when they are making shots.
“You cannot let them get out on the floor and run wild because they are very athletic.”
In their two games, Lipscomb limited Florida Gulf Coast to a combined eight points in transition. In two NCAA tourney games, the Eagles combined for 29 fast-break points, including 21 against Georgetown. They also shot 55 percent from the field against San Diego State, against whom Comer had 14 assists, and used a 21-2 second-half run to upset Georgetown to get the ball rolling.
But the Eagles have become best known for their high-flying acrobatic act called “Dunk City” by players and fans. In two NCAA tourney games, dunks have accounted for 18.5 percent of the team’s made field goals. Leading the dunk parade have been Chase Fieler, Sherwood Brown, Eric McKnight and Bernard Thompson, who had 23 points against San Diego State.
Sanderson got a private viewing up close and personal of the Dunk City crew prior to their game at Florida Gulf Coast, the 16-year school in its second year of NCAA Division I eligibility.
“It was about an hour and a half or so before the game,” Sanderson said, “and all their players were in two-line layups. But they weren’t doing layups. Every one of the players except the two guards were having a dunk-off. It was quite a show.”
Lipscomb sophomore guard Martin Smith admits having mixed emotions while watching Florida Gulf Coast.
“No way after we played them did I think they would make it this far,” Smith said of the Eagles, who beat beat regular-season champion Mercer on its home court in the A-Sun tourney final to earn its first NCAA tournament trip.
“I figured Mercer would win the tournament and go to the NCAAs,” he added. “As competitors, I wouldn’t say I am for them. But inside of me, I am happy for them and the conference. Seeing something like that shows that anything can happen to a group of people who put the work in. Florida Gulf Coast is a great example of that.”
Smith scored a career-high 30 points for Lipscomb in their second victory over FGCU. In the first meeting, senior guard Deonte Alexander got a career-high 29 points and Lipscomb overcame a 14-point deficit in the second half to grab a nine-point win in overtime.
Sanderson agreed with Smith that he didn’t see the NCAA tourney run by Florida Gulf Coast coming.
“Everybody has asked me, ‘Did you see it coming?’ Absolutely not,” Sanderson said. “Anybody who said they saw it coming is lying. I mean, no way.”
Rest assured, Sanderson is pulling for second-year Florida Gulf Coast coach Andy Enfield and his team to pull yet another improbable upset against the Gators. After all, league teams share in NCAA tournament financial revenues of its members, and exposure for the league has been unprecedented.
“It has been awesome and great for the league,” said Sanderson, who noted the A-Sun has had a better RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) league rating five of the last six years than both the Sun Belt Conference and Ohio Valley Conference, a pair of mid-major conferences that share a similar geographic footprint and natural regional rivalries.
“The amount of money and attention it is going to generate has just been off the charts,” Sanderson said.
Sanderson sees Florida Gulf Coast playing loose and having lots of fun while enjoying their time in the national limelight.
“Right now, Florida Gulf Coast is playing with house money,” he said. “Everything they are doing in the NCAA tournament has been gravy. All the pressure is on Georgetown, San Diego State and now Florida.
“There is no pressure for them to perform. And they are playing with an unbelievable amount of confidence. As you know, confidence goes a long way in helping you win games. They have done a very good job of deflecting all the pressure.”
But can Cinderella keep wearing the slipper all the way into the Elite Eight? Sanderson thinks Florida Gulf Coast’s run is done.
“I’m a realist, so I have to tell it like it is,” Sanderson said. “I would be shocked if they beat Florida.”