Back in the NCAA Tournament for the third time in five seasons, Florida Gulf Coast has proven to be more than a one-time wonder after its “Dunk City” phenomenon fueled a Sweet 16 run while captivating the country four years ago.
Florida State expects this trip to the tournament will finally be the start of a consistent run of its own after four straight years of missing out.
In a clash of two teams capable of unleashing plenty of offensive highlights, the No. 3 seed Seminoles and No. 14 seed Eagles open West Region play with a first-round game in front of what each program could almost consider a home crowd Thursday night at the Amway Center in Orlando, Fla.
“It’s finally here,” said FGCU junior guard Brandon Goodwin, who leads the team in scoring at 18.2 points per game. “This is something we’ll all be able to enjoy for the rest of our lives.”
The Eagles (26-7) have become something of a cult favorite among college basketball fans in recent seasons.
FGCU made a stunning run to the Sweet 16 as a high-flying, did-you-see-that No. 15 seed the only such seed to advance that far in the tournament in 2013 by upsetting Georgetown and San Diego State before falling to Florida. Last season, the Eagles won a play-in game over Fairleigh Dickinson before losing to eventual national runner-up North Carolina.
Efficient offense fuels these Eagles, who were fifth in the country in field goal percentage during the regular season at 50.2 percent.
The Seminoles (25-8) have struggled to make the Big Dance with regularity under longtime coach Leonard Hamilton. But this FSU squad, which finished second in the ACC during the regular season, also boasts a dynamic offense coming from one of the most talented lineups in the tournament.
Jonathan Isaac, a 6-foot-10 freshman forward, looks like an NBA lottery pick and is averaging 11.9 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. Dwayne Bacon, a sophomore guard, leads the Seminoles in scoring at 16.9 points per game, while junior guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes contributes 10.4 points and 4.8 assists per game. FSU averaged 82.5 points per game during the regular season, which was 18th in the country.
“Anytime you’re one of the top 4 seeds, it’s a significant position for your team and for your program,” said Hamilton, whose program was one of nine from the ACC to make the tournament. “We’re moving in the right direction. It gives us something to be proud of, feeling like they accomplished something over the course of the year. But they have to realize now, it’s a new season.”
The winner of Thursday’s game will face either Maryland or Xavier in the second round Saturday.
For FGCU to pull off another upset, the Eagles will have to contend with the size of Isaac and 7-foot-1 senior center Michael Ojo. That begins with senior forward Demetris Morant, whose 10.7 points and eight rebounds per game gives the Eagles some toughness in the paint.
From there, FGCU will need its backcourt to hold up against Bacon and Rathan-Mayes. Zach Johnson, a sophomore guard, adds 11.8 points per game for the Eagles while junior guard Christian Terrell chips in with 10.3.
“We know what to expect,” Terrell said. “Coach [Joe Dooley] told us a long time ago that it gets better and better as you keep going on. That’s what we want to get to. It was fun the first time, but we want to get further and further.”