Florida Gulf Coast relishing first NCAA tourney

March 20, 2013

Last March, a year before he and his teammates made history by leading Florida Gulf Coast to the NCAA tournament for the first time, then-freshman guard Brett Comer felt the sting of a near miss that became an inspiration. The Eagles lost to Belmont in the Atlantic Sun tournament championship game, an unsatisfying end to their first season of March Madness eligibility. 
Florida Gulf Coast, under then-first-year coach Andy Enfield, had mounted a significant challenge. The Bruins beat the Eagles by a combined 65 points in two regular-season games, but Florida Gulf Coast led by 13 in the first half that night at University Center in Macon, Ga. 
Eventually, Belmont rallied, and a dream was lost. Behind 16 points from then-junior guard Ian Clark, the Bruins outscored the Eagles by 17 in the second half on their way to a comfortable victory. 
“We’re not doing that again,” Comer recalls he and some of his teammates saying after the defeat. “It’s not going to happen again. We’re not losing.”
This spring, for the past three weeks, the Eagles have done nothing but win. Florida Gulf Coast (24-10) – a university of more than 12,500 students in Fort Myers, Fla., that completed its transition to Division I two years ago – is the most green of Cinderellas: A first-time invitee as a No. 15 seed riding five consecutive victories, a program that faces No. 2 seed Georgetown in the South Region’s Round of 64 on Friday night in Philadelphia with visions of an upset, an upstart in a state where coaches Jim Larranaga and Billy Donovan have produced memorable seasons of their own. 
But beyond the shadows cast in Miami and Gainesville, far from the headlines garnered by ACC and SEC powers, is a group of dreamers eager to make the most of their first NCAA tournament. 
It’s a journey that has offered lessons for this season. But it’s also one that will teach for years to come. 
“If you’re willing to put the time and effort into a goal … and you become a good teammate, special things can happen,” Enfield said. “I think that’s true no matter what you do.”
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Enfield paused to watch the celebration. It was shortly after Florida Gulf Coast beat regular-season champion Mercer by 13 points on March 9 to clinch the Atlantic Sun tournament title. The sight was the culmination of a whirlwind 23 months for the former Florida State, Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks assistant. He took it all in from feet away, while waiting for a television interview: Fans, players and university officials – including his boss, athletic director Ken Kavanagh – made the most of the moment in Macon after their close call a year before.  
The coach smiled and thought about the achievement. He was hired on March 31, 2011, and had little time to do much else but hold on during a “million-miles-an-hour” effort to build. After he received the job, his third kid – son Marcum – was born April 8. A week later, he hired a coaching staff, and the group began trying to convince recruits to buy into an unproven vision. 
“There’s no mentor that can help you through that,” Enfield said. “You have to do it yourself with your coaching staff. My mentors had prepared me to handle that moment.”
He had three good ones: Leonard Hamilton, with whom Enfield spent five years at Florida State; Mike Dunleavy, whom he worked under with the Bucks; and Rick Pitino, whom he worked under with the Celtics. 
Signing four players proved to be critical in Enfield’s early efforts to shape his new program. Comer, a 6-foot-3, 192-pound guard from Winter Park, Fla.; Bernard Thompson, a 6-3, 166-pound guard from Conyers, Ga.; Eric McKnight, a 6-9, 210-pound forward transfer from Iowa State; and Filip Cvjeticanin, a 6-9, 218-pound forward from Croatia, were among the first to make official visits.  
This year, Thompson, the Atlantic Sun defensive player of the year, is fifth in the nation in steals (2.82 per game). Comer, the Atlantic Sun tournament MVP, is No. 17 in assists (6.3 per game). Both complement senior guard Sherwood Brown, the Atlantic Sun player of the year, and his team-leading 15.3 points per game. 
“It makes me really proud to know that I helped start something special here and helped build a new legacy,” said Brown, an Orlando native. “I know that for at least a couple years down the road, we’re going to be a really, really good program. In the near future, I can’t wait to see where this program is headed.” 
In the fall, some within Florida Gulf Coast had a good idea where they could go after toppling an in-state power. On Nov. 13 – in front of their program’s first sellout crowd of 4,552 fans – the Eagles upset Miami by 12 points behind 14 each from Brown and McKnight. 
The result was part of an ambitious non-conference schedule that included losses at Duke, St. John’s and Iowa State. After the victory over Miami, in a charged locker room at Alico Arena, Brown recalls Enfield saying, “I’ve been telling you guys this all year and last year that you’re a really good team – you just have to play hard and play good defense.” “He’s been a winner his whole life,” Kavanagh said of Enfield. “He brought that mentality in from the day that he interviewed. … If you look at his track record and resume, he’s gone beyond what people would probably expect and continues to demonstrate that he’s someone who’s been very successful.” 
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Brown walked into a public speaking class on March 11 and was given the floor to share a point of pride for his campus. It was two days after Florida Gulf Coast beat Mercer, snapping the Bears’ 17-game home-winning streak after the teams split their regular-season meetings, and a professor gave Brown the chance to tell his classmates about the NCAA tournament berth.
After Brown spoke, there was applause. There were wishes of congratulations. Yes, this is a month for the powers, to see if Louisville and Indiana can realize potential and add another chapter to their programs’ rich annals. It’s to see if Ben Howland can save his job at UCLA and to learn if Miami and Florida can cap strong seasons by snipping nets and punching tickets to the Final Four. In many ways, March is a month for the proven, the familiar, the consistent. 
But it’s also, of course, a time for the dreamers, for hope and first-time sensations. Florida Gulf Coast’s journey will continue Friday. Win or lose, though, it will carry beyond a stop in Philadelphia. 
“I’ve learned a lot through this journey,” Brown said. “It has proven to me that if you work hard, anything is possible. If you have the motivation and drive, then you can achieve anything that you put your mind to.”
“I think so many Cinderella stories that occur not only in sports but in other walks of life are from people who don’t let others set a ceiling for themselves,” Kavanagh said. “They do the best they can. That, in itself, is all anybody should ask of oneself. If you do that, there shouldn’t be a reason why you (should) think when the game starts that you don’t have a chance to win.”
Now, Florida Gulf Coast believes it can win. It’s an approach Comer, Thompson and McKnight discussed among one another when they arrived in southwest Florida to trust a vision. 
After a near miss last year, a first-time Cinderella feels at home. 
“We were pushing to make the championship, to make the tournament every year we possibly could,” Comer said. “I think we’re on the right track.”
You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.