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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.