Is Florida Gulf Coast the most surprising Cinderella of all time?

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Every tournament needs a Cinderella. It’s one of the great recurring subplots that March Madness supplies and it usually helps shape the tournament’s identity.

No. 15-seed Florida Gulf Coast is in the midst of what could be the greatest Cinderella story in NCAA tournament history. The University was founded just 16 years ago in 1997. The men’s basketball program was formed just 11 years ago in 2002. The Eagles became a full Division I member in 2011.

And now, in just their second year of postseason eligibility, Florida Gulf Coast is headed to the Sweet Sixteen, having defeated No. 2-seed Georgetown 78-68 and No. 7-seed San Diego State 81-71.

But it’s not just getting to the Sweet Sixteen, which the Eagles are doing as the first No. 15-seed this far in NCAA tournament history (until this season, 15 seeds were 6-112 overall in the NCAA tournament). It’s how they’re doing it, with highlight-reel dunks and a run-and-gun game plan, winning by an average of 10 ppg. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that the wife of the head coach is a former-supermodel.

MORE: Get to know Florida Gulf Coast

With the exception of the Final Four runs from VCU, Butler and George Mason, it can be argued that the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles are putting together the most impressive Cinderella performance of all time. Sure, there are Cinderella teams that had better seasons and better teams than FGCU, like Cornell’s 2010 squad that made it to the Sweet Sixteen behind the trio of Louis Dale, Ryan Whittman and Jeff Foote.

Davidson’s 2008 team led by Steph Curry also falls in to this category. But both Cornell and Davidson were known commodities heading in to the tournament and had put together impeccable regular seasons. The same can be said for UT-Chattanooga, who as a No. 14-seed, knocked off No. 3-seed Georgia and No. 6-seed Illinois en route to a berth in the Sweet Sixteen. But the Mocs had previous NCAA tournament experience having been there in both 1994 and 1995.

Then there’s the 1990 Loyola Marymount team. Still mourning the loss of teammate Hank Gathers, Bo Kimble led the Lions on a run to the Elite Eight in which they defeated Michigan, the defending National Champions, 149-115. But like Davidson. Loyola Marymount had NBA talent. Bo Kimble was drafted eighth overall by the Clippers following the season.

The Gonzaga teams of the late nineties and early aughts were regular season and tournament champions and had future pros. The 1998 Valparaiso team had Bryce Drew, who went on to a have a solid NBA career. The 2006 Bradley Sweet Sixteen team had future-draft pick Patrick O’Bryant. Miami (OH) had Wally Szcerbiak in 1999.

The Eagles have no future pros. Sherwood Brown, their best player was mostly recruited by low and mid-major programs, and was categorized as having the potential to be a solid mid-major scorer. Bret Comer received interest from Colorado State and UMass, but decided to stay local following the death of his father. The same can be said about Chase Fieler, Eddie Murray and Bernard Thompson, all of whom were only lightly recruited coming out of high school. The Eagles don’t have a Steph Curry or a Bryce Drew. Not yet at least.

Heck, Florida Gulf Coast didn’t even win their conference’s regular season. Despite their non-conference win over Miami, this was a team that lost to a 12-18 Lipscomb team twice. They also lost to an East Tennessee State team that finished with 22 losses.

MORE: Coach Andy Enfield’s wife is now a hot topic

You have to go back 14 years to find a Sweet Sixteen run from a double-digit seed as improbable as Florida Gulf Coast’s. In 1999 Southwest Missouri State (Now Missouri State) lost seven conference games and finished with a 22-11 record. The Bears were led by current-New Mexico head coach Steve Alford, and featured a similar ragtag cast of characters that stock Florida Gulf Coast’s roster. The 1998 squad had the same meager expectations as FGCU this season and finished second in their conference. Yet after holding Wisconsin to just 32 total points in a 43-32 first round NCAA tournament win, the Bears crushed No. 4-seed Tennessee by 30 points in the second round, 81-51. They would lose to eventual national runners-up Duke in the Sweet Sixteen, 78-61.

But of all the Cinderellas who came come before us, none of them have been quite like FGCU. This is an Atlantic Sun team we are talking about. The Northern Iowas, and George Masons of the world came from strong mid-major basketball conferences. The Atlantic Sun is a low-major, home to many fledgling Division I programs. A team from the Atlantic Sun Conference isn’t supposed to win a NCAA tournament game, especially not two against the likes of Georgetown and San Diego State.

MORE: Should Florida Gulf Coast have been a 15 seed?

Other than the fact that they had a favorable match-up against a Georgetown team with a fragile tournament psyche, very few if any, both within the industry and out, that thought this Eagles’ team could even win one tournament game.

We won’t know until after next weekend just how special this run is. But up until this point, history suggests that out of all the Cinderella stories that March has written, the one we’re currently reading may end up being the best.

Thursday’s Three Things To Know: Drexel’s historic comeback, Arizona survives, Houston doesn’t

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1. DREXEL COMPLETED THE BIGGEST COMEBACK IN DIVISION I HISTORY

Drexel trailed Delaware 53-19 late in the first half on Thursday night.

They won 85-83.

Both of those things are 100 percent true and 100 percent happened.

2. ARIZONA WON WITHOUT ALLONZO TRIER … BARELY

No. 14 Arizona was forced to play without Allonzo Trier on Thursday night at Oregon State after Trier tested positive for a banned substance again. The Wildcats led by 12 points in the first half, but Wayne Tinkle’s club slowly but surely chipped away at the lead. They were ahead with less than a minute left with OSU missed two wide-open threes on the same possession before a pair of Rawle Alkins free throws forced overtime.

Alkins — who finished with 16 points on the night — took over in the extra frame, but if there is anything that we learned in the 45 minutes that Arizona played without Trier available on Thursday, it’s that they are going to struggle to win games if they do not have their second-leading scorer available.

3. TUBBY SMITH FINALLY BEAT A RANKED TEAM

Tubby Smith has been crushed throughout his tenure with Memphis, and deservedly so. The Tigers are not selling tickets and are not competing at a level that is expected of that program in the post-John Calipari era. That said, they aren’t terrible. On Thursday night, Memphis beat No. 23 Houston in FedEd Forum — Smith’s first win over a ranked opponent since he took over the job — to alleviate some of the heat that has been directed his way this season.

Houston, on the other hand, is probably pretty safe when it comes to inclusion into the NCAA tournament at this point, but they sure have had a weird seven days. It started with a win over Cincinnati, then turned into a 21-point win at Temple and concluded with a loss to Memphis. Such is life in the AAC, I guess.

Ford leads No. 22 Saint Mary’s past Pepperdine, 75-61

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MORAGA, Calif. (AP) — Jordan Ford had 18 points and a career-high 10 rebounds, and No. 22 Saint Mary’s rolled to a 75-61 victory over Pepperdine on Thursday night.

Calvin Hermanson scored 14 points and Tanner Krebs added 12 for the Gaels (26-4, 15-2 West Coast Conference). Jock Landale scored 10 points and grabbed six rebounds.

Ford shot 7 for 11 from the field and 4 for 6 from 3-point range and fell two points short of tying his career scoring high.

Saint Mary’s remained one game behind Gonzaga (26-4, 16-1), a 77-72 winner at San Diego, in the WCC with one regular-season game to play. The Gaels can earn a share of the WCC regular-season title with a victory at home against Santa Clara and a Gonzaga loss at BYU on Saturday.

Saint Mary’s point guard Emmett Naar, who injured his left ankle late in the first half against Portland on Saturday, started and had three points and six assists in 14 minutes, most of those in the first half.

Trae Berhow and Knox Hellums each scored 13 points for Pepperdine (4-25, 1-16).

Ford had 14 points and six rebounds in the first half, when Saint Mary’s built a 46-26 lead.

Pepperdine guard Eric Cooper Jr., who averages 13.2 points, did not make the trip because of a shoulder injury. Udenyi Amadi started in his place.

BIG PICTURE

Pepperdine: The Waves lost their eighth straight game and are locked into sole possession of last place in the WCC. Pepperdine will be the No. 10 seed in the upcoming conference tournament.

Saint Mary’s: The Gaels won their second straight after losing back-to-back games to Gonzaga on Feb. 10 and San Francisco on Feb. 15. Saint Mary’s had won a school-record 19 straight games before falling to Gonzaga.

UP NEXT

Pepperdine hosts Portland on Saturday in its WCC regular-season finale. The Waves fell 85-76 in overtime at Portland on Feb. 1.

Saint Mary’s hosts Santa Clara on Saturday in its final WCC regular-season game. The Gaels beat the Broncos 81-57 on Jan. 11 at Santa Clara.

Thornton, Rivers lead Memphis past No. 23 Houston

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Jimario Rivers and Raynere Thornton each scored 21 points, helping Memphis beat No. 23 Houston 91-85 on Thursday night.

Rivers also grabbed nine rebounds and Thornton made four 3-pointers as Memphis (17-11, 8-7 American Athletic Conference) earned its third straight victory.

Rob Gray had 30 points and seven assists for Houston (21-6, 11-4), which entered the Top 25 this week for the first time this season. Armoni Brooks and Corey Davis Jr. each scored 15 points.

The Cougars led 43-37 at halftime, but they shot 32.3 percent from the field in the second half. The Tigers made 54 percent of their shots while rallying for the victory.

Memphis went ahead to stay with a 22-8 surge that made it 76-68 on Mike Parks Jr.’s basket with 6:28 remaining. The Tigers closed it out at the line, making 29 of 36 attempts for the game.

Houston had won five in a row. It went 18 of 20 at the line.

BIG PICTURE

Houston: The Cougars, one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the conference, went 4 for 15 from beyond the arc in the second half. They also surrendered their most points this season.

Memphis: Leading scorer Jeremiah Martin left in the first half with a lower body injury. Thornton picked up the scoring after the break, scoring 19 points in the second half.

UP NEXT

Houston: Entertains East Carolina on Sunday.

Memphis: Travels to UConn on Sunday

No. 6 Gonzaga rallies to beat San Diego, 77-72

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SAN DIEGO (AP) — Killian Tillie scored 17 points, Rui Hachimura added 16 and No. 6 Gonzaga beat San Diego 77-72 on Thursday night to clinch at least a share of the West Coast Conference title.

The Bulldogs (26-4, 16-1 WCC) defeated the Toreros (17-12, 8-9) for the eighth straight game and for the 19th time in their last 20 meetings.

Olin Cater III led San Diego with 21 points.

After trailing at halftime and falling behind by eight points in the second half, the Bulldogs didn’t seize the lead until midway through the second half, when Tillie’s 3-pointer made it 52-51.

It was a back-and-forth affair from there, with the Toreros relying on their stingy defense to slow the up-tempo Bulldogs. But Gonzaga had too much firepower and was helped by four straight free throws from Hachimura when taking the lead for good with four minutes remaining.

Gonzaga demolished San Diego in last year’s visit by 58 points. The Bulldogs built an early six-point lead in this one but San Diego bounced back, tying the score at 27 with five minutes left on the first of three straight 3-point baskets by Carter. When he hit his second one, San Diego had a three-point advantage, its first edge since the game’s opening bucket.

Tyler Williams’ mid-range jumper gave San Diego a 35-30 lead and it was 37-34 at halftime. San Diego finished the first 20 minutes by converting 4 of 7 3-point shots.

BIG PICTURE

Gonzaga: When Gonzaga fell behind early in the game, it was the first time it had trailed in four games. … The Bulldogs have earned at least a share of the WCC title in 17 of the past 18 seasons and 18 of the last 20. … Gonzaga is the only team in the nation with seven players to score at least 20 points in a game this season.

University of San Diego: The highest-ranked team the Toreros have beaten is No. 14 UCLA in the 2002-03 season. … Forward Cameron Neubauer was honored before the game on senior night.

UP NEXT

Gonzaga is at BYU on Saturday night.

San Diego is at San Francisco on Saturday night.

Carsen Edwards scores 40 points, No. 9 Purdue beats Illinois 93-86

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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Carsen Edwards scored career-high 40 points and Dakota Mathias added 18 to help No. 9 Purdue outlast Illinois in a 93-86 victory on Thursday night.

The Boilermakers were without their second-leading scorer Vincent Edwards but had no problem scoring.

Purdue shot 58.3 percent from the field and 47.8 percent from beyond the 3-point line. Edwards and Mathias each had four from behind the arc.

There were eight lead changes in the first half, highlighted by two big runs. With just under 10 minutes left Edwards stole the ball and went down for a huge dunk to spark a 17-6 run for the Boilermakers. The Illini responded with a 10-3 run to close out the half trailing 43-38.

Illinois stayed within striking distance the rest of the game, but ultimately Purdue’s size and Edwards scoring were too much. The sophomore scored 25 of his points in the second half, including a monstrous dunk on Trent Frazier with just under seven minutes to play.

The Boilermakers also outrebounded the Illini 33-20.

Leron Black led Illinois with 28 points, notching his fourth-consecutive 20-point game.

BIG PICTURE

Illinois continues to struggle in close games. The Illini have now lost 10 games this season by single digits.

After losing three straight games, Purdue has reestablished itself in the Big Ten with two close victories over Penn State and Illinois. The Boilermakers are one win away from tying the second most victories in school history.