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Experienced backcourt of Comer and Thompson hope to lead Dunk City back to glory

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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here.

America is familiar with common Florida destinations like South Beach and Disney, but last March, basketball fans quickly became aware of the brand-new Sunshine State landmark known affectionately by college basketball enthusiasts as “Dunk City.”

Dunk City — technically located in Fort Myers, Florida in the Southwest portion of the state between Tampa Bay and Miami — quickly became a national phenomenon, complete with gear, hashtags (#DunkCity) and the attention of the national media as the 15-seeded Eagles blew past Georgetown and San Diego State to become the first 15 seed to ever reach the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16.

Head coach Andy Enfield bolted for USC in the offseason and senior leader Sherwood Brown exhausted his eligibility but the good news for Dunk City is the return of four starters, led by the dynamic junior backcourt of Brett Comer and Bernard Thompson.

Comer and Thompson started all 37 games during Florida Gulf Coast’s 26-11 season in which they won the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament and advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history. The Eagles were a transitory Division I program beginning with the 2007–08 season and granted full D-I membership before the 2011-12 season, so for the Atlantic Sun program to receive at least four nationally televised games during the 2013-14 season is a testament to the power of Dunk City and how the nation took notice.

“Now I tell people that I go to FGCU and they’re like, ‘Oh, Dunk City!’ I could just tell them I go to Dunk City they say, ‘Oh, you go to Florida Gulf Coast!’ I like the name and it represents us well,” Thompson said. “We dunk and we have a high-flying style of play. So I think it’s good for us and our school since our school is so young and the nickname helps us.”

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Former long-time Kansas assistant coach Joe Dooley takes over for Florida Gulf Coast at head coach this year as the Eagles become the hunted. They’re the preseason favorite to win the Atlantic Sun thanks in large part to the passing of Comer and the all-around skills of off-guard Thompson. Comer was 14th in the nation in assists, averaging 6.6 dimes per contest last season, as many of his passes and lobs led to Dunk City throwdowns. The 244 assists Comer dished out were the second-most for a single season in Atlantic Sun history and he was the A-Sun Conference Tournament MVP.

Comer’s backcourt teammate Bernard Thompson is often on the receiving end of his point guard’s creative passes as the two close off-court friends have been in the Florida Gulf Coast program together since they were freshmen. Thompson won the A-Sun’s Defensive Player of the Year award as a sophomore and is the team’s leading returning scorer at 14.3 points per game. At 102 total steals last season, Thompson was second overall in the country in defensive thefts. Roommates the past two years, Comer and Thompson will take the Eagles as far as they can go this season.

“It’s nice to have Bernard back there. We both came in together and we’ve both grown together too. We create a lot off of each other here and we’ve been doing this for three years,” Comer said. “And having guys like Chase (Fieler) come back and our transfers will be coming in, so we’ll have a good core coming back and some new pieces here.”

Chalk up another assist to Comer for mentioning his teammates, as he’ll have plenty of weapons — besides Thompson — to work with this season. Fieler, a senior forward, averaged 12.1 points and 5.4 rebounds per game last season while accumulating 59 dunks that helped him garner a 56 percent field goal percentage and forward Eric McKnight is a 6’9″ junior that put up 60 percent field goal shooting and adds a shot-blocking presence to the group. Marquette transfer and 6’6″ junior Jamail Jones is a former top-100 recruit that’s eligible this season and will replace Brown’s presence in the lineup and Georgia Tech transfer Nate Hicks adds a versatile 6’10” inside-out option.

“(Hicks is) good. He’s versatile and for someone his size, he can step out a little bit and knock down shots, so that helps us out a lot,” Thompson said of Hicks.

But new coach Joe Dooley, who is incorporating a similar high-paced attack for the Eagles this season, knows that his backcourt will make all the difference if Florida Gulf Coast is to make another NCAA Tournament run this season.

“We’ve got some experience back, four starters and those guys have a pretty good feel for how to play together,” Dooley said. “You have a point guard that’s a two-year starter and you have a two-guard that’s a two-year starter and they have some familiarity playing in the conference and playing together and hopefully they’ll make another jump this year.”

CLICK HERE to read through the rest of NBCSports.com’s feature stories

Thompson and Comer spend plenty of time away from the court playing Call of Duty, getting food or  just hanging out, but together in the same backcourt, they know where each other is going to be at all times.

“Brett just has tremendous, tremendous vision. He’ll see me and we just read each other,” Thompson said. “It’s just a great chemistry that we have; a great bond that we have. You’ll see it on and off the court. It makes it a lot easier for me and him that we know each other’s tendencies.”

Because of their chemistry and experience, the Eagles have expectations that exceed the results of last season’s group. It’s hard to contemplate another Sweet 16 run — or beyond — but Dunk City is trying to follow-up on last season’s run with another run that matches or exceeds that effort.

“We want to win the conference regular season — which we didn’t do last year — and we want to win the conference tournament again and we want to make the NCAA Tournament and make more noise,” Comer said of the team’s expectations. “I think that we showed that we have good players and we can compete with anybody.”

But in a state that LeBron (currently) calls home, Dunk City is just happy to have found its place on the national basketball landscape for the time being.

“We had people come out-of-state just to see us, just to come get our autograph,” Thompson said.  “And the fans, the Dirty Birds (the student fan base), just come out to everywhere we play just to support us. It’s just been good that we’re recognized and when you go somewhere people are like, ‘Florida Gulf Coast,’ and know it’s us. So that feels good just to get the recognition.”

Excitement for the sequel to Dunk City is building. Dunk City after Dark — the program’s season-opening madness event — will air on ESPNU as one of nine programs that the network will air and Comer said that excitement for all sports on Florida Gulf Coast’s campus was continually building over the course of 2013.

Dunk City is squarely on the map for now, but are they here to stay? The Eagles are enjoying the ride and they hope it continues in 2013-14 and beyond.

“I think we helped put the school on the map and it’s growing from that. It’s a lot of fun down here now,” Comer said.

After blowout of South Carolina, is No. 22 Kentucky a Final Four contender?

Kentucky guard Tyler Ulis (3) guards the ball after a rebound during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Auburn, Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016, in Auburn, Ala. Auburn won 75-70. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
(AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
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It only took 2:26 for official Doug Sirmons to plant two technical fouls on Kentucky head coach John Calipari, and that may have been the worst thing that could have happened to South Carolina.

He poked the bear, and the result was that a ticked off No. 22 Wildcat team proceeded to run the Gamecocks out of their own gym, 89-62.

The star of the show was interim head coach Tyler Ulis, who put together as dominating of a performance as you’ll ever see out of a player that stands 5-foot-9. Ulis finished with 27 points and 12 assists, hitting 4-for-8 from three and turning the ball over just once.

Marcus Lee added 11 points and 13 boards, including six on the offensive end, and Jamal Murray had his customary 26 points on 9-for-21 shooting, but the story of this game was Ulis.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seed a player under 6-foot capable of dominating a game the way that Ulis can dominate. Murray can take over with the best of them — we saw it against Florida and Ohio State — but when it comes to the NCAA tournament, this Kentucky team will go as far as Ulis carries them.

And based on the way that he’s played in the last six weeks, that could end up being pretty far. In SEC play, Ulis is averaging 19.4 points and 7.6 assists. He’s scored at least 17 points in 12 of the last 14 games and has notched as least five assists in all 14. He just orchestrated a total mollywhopping of a Frank Martin-coached team that was tied for first place in the SEC while playing without his head coach and on the road.

The issue with Kentucky is the same today as it was a month ago. They’re a two-man team with an inconsistent supporting cast. When their two studs play like this, they can beat anyone in the country. When they don’t, they can struggle against anyone.

But here’s the thing: When Ulis is playing the way that he’s played of late, they don’t really need all that much from their supporting cast. Derek Willis needs to be able to space the floor. Lee and Skal Labissiere need to be able to hold their own against opposing big men.

And when that happens?

Kentucky is clearly the best team in the SEC and good enough to be able to win four straight in the Big Dance and get to a Final Four.

No. 25 Wichita State falls to Northern Iowa as at-large chances take critical hit

Northern Iowa's Matt Bohannon drives in the lane past Wichita State's Conner Frankamp during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016, in Cedar Falls, Iowa. (Matthew Putney/The Waterloo Courier via AP)
(Matthew Putney/The Waterloo Courier via AP)
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Northern Iowa has been a confusing team to follow this season but the Panthers peaked against a ranked team once again on Saturday in a 53-50 upset of No. 25 Wichita State. While the Panthers looked like a potential at-large NCAA tournament team during the non-conference season with wins over North Carolina and Iowa State, they’ve faltered in Missouri Valley Conference play.

Saturday’s road win at Koch Arena proves that Northern Iowa (16-11, 8-6) is still a credible threat in the conference tournament as they’ve now won six consecutive games. The loss for the Shockers could end their at-large hopes and their 43-game home winning streak — the longest such streak in the nation — was snapped.

A defensive adjustment was the difference for the Panthers as a switch to a 2-3 zone in the first half confused Wichita State’s offense enough for Northern Iowa to jump out to a 38-27 halftime lead. The Shockers (18-7, 12-2) recovered enough to make it a tight game, but Northern Iowa came up with big shots down the stretch to come up with the road win. Klint Carlson was a tough matchup for the Wichita State defense as he led the Panthers with 12 points while Wyatt Lohaus contributed 11.

Wichita State had two good looks from 3-point range to tie in the game’s final 10 seconds, but Ron Baker (12 points) and Connor Frankamp (0 points) both missed. Senior Fred Van Vleet was held scoreless in the first half and finished with eight points on 3-for-15 shooting.

This loss is concerning for Wichita State, not only because they hurt their dwindling at-large chances, but they didn’t look prepared to face the zone and 3/4 court press that Northern Iowa threw at them. The Shockers shot 30 percent (20-for-66) from the field and 22 percent (7-for-31) from 3-point range as they really couldn’t get much of anything going on the offensive end. Van Vleet and Baker couldn’t get their shots to fall and Northern Iowa mustered just enough offense to pull off the win.

As noted before, this win is another confidence builder for Northern Iowa, as they’ve reeled off six consecutive wins after a puzzling 2-6 start in the Valley. It’s also nice that the Panthers won a slow, grind-it-out game on the road over a quality opponent, since the North Carolina and Iowa State wins came in more uptempo settings.

The Missouri Valley is looking like a one-bid league as we inch closer to Arch Madness and with Wichita State falling to Illinois State and Northern Iowa recently, the conference tournament could have a lot of teams with a realistic chance for the autobid.