FGCU a hub of excitement during tourney run

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Lindsey Thrasher walked from the bookstore, plastic bag in hand, as a witness to a week unlike any other on her campus. It was shortly after noon Tuesday, and the NCAA tournament remained a popular topic among her peers.

After securing her purchase, the Florida Gulf Coast senior entered a hallway at the Cohen Center, the campus’ community hub. Inside the bag was a green Sweet 16 T-shirt, one commemorating the Eagles’ achievement as the first No. 15 seed to advance as far. Behind her, in the bookstore, a line of customers stretched from the registers to near a wall about 40 feet away. March Madness buzz had become part of life.

“It’s insane,” said Thrasher, a criminal justice major. “I don’t think it has ever been like this before. People are actually coming to campus and staying all day just to see if they can get a glimpse of one of the players. Everyone is wearing FGCU stuff. The spirit is amazing. It has never been like this before.”

This has been a week of firsts for the small university in southwest Florida that became eligible for the NCAA tournament only last season. Two upsets in three days in the South Regional turned Florida Gulf Coast into the epicenter of the college basketball world, before the Eagles try to extend their Cinderella story Friday in Arlington, Texas, against Florida.

Evidence of the excitement on the palm-tree-lined campus is easy to find. Cars in a parking garage near the Cohen Center include school-spirited messages such as, “Sweet 16!!! GO EAGLES!” painted on windows. Small signs are placed in public areas that read, “SOARING INTO THE SIXTEEN.” A window near a Cohen Center entrance is painted with large green letters to read, “DUNK CITY,” as a tribute to the moniker that gives nod to Florida Gulf Coast’s loose style.

“As a group, we’ve been helped by our students for so long, giving us the money to have our resources,” athletic director Ken Kavanagh said. “Now we’re giving back in ways that are fun. . . . It’s not just the basketball program, the athletic department. It’s the entire university, I think, that has this window to sell ourselves — whether it’s people looking at our website, going to the bookstore, going to admissions to look at what our opportunities are. All of us are in this together.”

The campus has come together in a variety of ways. Upon returning after the victories in Philadelphia, some basketball players received applause in class. On Monday night, about 4,000 fans gathered at Alico Arena — it holds 4,500 — for a pep rally that was broadcast nationally.  

All this seemed so unlikely, so unpredictable before a victory over No. 2 seed Georgetown last Friday. Blake Dale, a freshman business marketing major, said interest in basketball had declined on campus after a victory over Miami on Nov. 13, despite the Eagles finishing 24-10 in the regular season. Before the last week, little was known about coach Andy Enfield and his wife, Amanda Marcum, whose background as a former swimsuit model has gained attention with the Eagles’ rise.

“When this whole thing was going on, my roommate goes, ‘Enfield’s wife, she’s a good-looking girl,’ ” Dale said. “I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s true.’ ”

Enfield and his players have received a crash course on how quickly life can change with March success. Their time home before leaving for North Texas was filled by managing their newfound celebrity status: countless interviews, coping with heightened profiles across the region and world, learning to share their university’s story but also focus on work at hand.

“It’s overwhelming,” Enfield said. “But at the same time, I told our players that I would rather have media attention now than no media attention, because that means you’re not playing.”

Added senior guard Sherwood Brown: “I’ll remember how much fun we’re having and how this all brought us together.”

Many more at Florida Gulf Coast will remember this time too. Later Tuesday, Rachel Grove, a junior elementary education major, sat in a chair across from the bookstore and watched the activity nearby.

During a week unlike any other — after a run unlike any before for a No. 15 seed — anything seems possible.  

“I never really thought about it, to be honest,” she said of FGCU advancing to the Sweet 16. “But now that it has, it’s awesome.”

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.