Early-season tests prepped FGCU for Dance

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Much about Florida Gulf Coast’s Sweet 16 berth is a contradiction, so it should be little shock that the Eagles have the audacity to believe that they can advance further. 
This confidence is part of the reason why they’re here, of course, preparing to face Florida on Friday in Arlington, Texas, in the South Regional in an effort to keep their Cinderella story frozen in time at 11:59 p.m. Their hang-loose bravado is a breath of fresh air in an era where a methodical, grind-it-out approach can be good for records but awful on the eyes.
We respect elite results no matter how they come, even if they are gained through boring and plodding ways. But, yes, we like goosebumps. We want to be entertained. Florida Gulf Coast has been March’s main act, an X’s-and-O’s laser show with no signs of slowing. 
Because of it, don’t expect a high-flying underdog to arrive at JerryWorld in awe of its Big Brother to the north. More than 260 miles separate UF from FGCU, but there may as well be light years between them on Interstate 75. One is a Southeastern Conference power, a two-time national champion, an 18-time NCAA tournament invitee capable of reaching its fifth Final Four in Atlanta. The other has learned that March can grant fame and frame legacies, all in its first dance and second season of Division I postseason eligibility.
How has a team that lost to four sub-200 RPI squads, including Lipscomb (12-18) twice, beaten squads such as Miami, Georgetown and San Diego State? How has a group of overlooked hardwood acrobats advanced further than all No. 15 seeds before them? How has this happened? 
Take advice from Florida Gulf Coast coach Andy Enfield, who surrenders nothing to the orange and blue or, well, anyone. 
“From a size and talent perspective, I think we’re both equal-sized brothers,” Enfield said. “Our guys are just as talented and just as athletic and just as good. I don’t know who’s going to come ready to play. We’re going to find out.”
No matter what happens Friday, the nation has learned plenty about Enfield’s ethos over the past week. The Eagles’ offensive strategy of pushing the ball with an eye toward creating highlight-reel sensations is of the take-it-or-leave-it variety. For them, that’s the way it should be, and so far, it has worked. 
A program like FGCU’s requires trust to build, a complete buy-in to its methods even if an approach is contradictory to the game’s play-it-safe trend. More than any other, the reason for the Eagles’ success this month is this: They are brave enough to be different.
“Kids play their best when they’re happy, when they’re having fun,” said Miami coach Jim Larranaga, whose team lost to the Eagles by 12 points on Nov. 13. “You see it in Florida Gulf Coast. They’re all over the news. Why? They’re throwing lob passes. If those things were going out of bounds, everybody would be saying those are dumb plays. Instead, they’re saying, ‘These kids are loose. They’re confident, and they’re really, really good.’ I think that stems from your mental preparation and your emotional preparation off the court.”
Larranaga is right. Preparation has played a part in this Cinderella story. In addition to the victory over Miami at home, Florida Gulf Coast has played road games against VCU (lost by 23), Duke (lost by 21), St. John’s (lost by 11) and Iowa State (lost by 11). Each experience gave the Eagles a glimpse of the pressure and physicality common in the NCAA tournament against higher seeds. 
That’s part of the reason why they only committed a combined 26 turnovers against Georgetown and San Diego State while forcing 31. That’s part of the reason why they shot 42.9 percent against the Hoyas and 55.9 percent against the Aztecs. Because of previous tests, including letdowns against Lipscomb, the stage in Philadelphia was manageable. 
“We played VCU and Duke early. That set up our base for coming in and playing bigger schools,” Florida Gulf Coast sophomore guard Bernard Thompson said. “I knew we were going to be at this point, and I knew that pressure was going to come on us. We handled it well after we played them. I think playing the big schools early really helped.”
Added senior guard Sherwood Brown: “You need a couple losses to teams that you probably should not have lost to in order to get your mind back on track. I believe with those losses (to Lipscomb) that we definitely got our mind back on track, and it just brought us more together for the Big Dance.”
So while Florida Gulf Coast’s surprise seems to have dropped from the sky, the ingredients for a historic run have simmered since November. Sure, the stats are there – the Eagles led the Atlantic Sun Conference in almost every major category, including scoring offense (70.1 points per game) and scoring margin (plus-17.2) – but growth has come in time. Now we see the result. 
“The biggest thing is that their confidence level is at an all-time high,” Lipscomb coach Scott Sanderson said. “They’re a completely different team now than they were in January and February because they’re playing on the biggest stage in college basketball, and they’re having a lot of success and fun doing it.” 
Success. Fun. An experience to observe. 
The Eagles were never supposed to make it here. But they have, with flair. They’ve proven traveling by air can take dreams far. 
You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.