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

Mar 25, 2013, 7:00 AM EDT

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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.

  1. rodge1 - Mar 25, 2013 at 7:43 AM

    Congrats to FGCU… Wonder what those people that were criticizing Miami for losing to them have to say now… Go Canes

  2. rmfields - Mar 25, 2013 at 8:44 AM

    Is Florida Gulf Coast the most surprising Cinderella of all time? Not yet. But if they beat Florida and advance to the Elite 8, then yes, without a doubt, yes.

    • md22mdrx - Mar 25, 2013 at 10:56 AM

      Beating Florida would be huge … and as high as I am on FGCU, I don’t see them beating Florida.

      Being a Michigan fan, but a HUGE underdog rooter …. I’d have a hard time if FGCU pulled off the impossible and Michigan beat Kansas.

  3. tarr123 - Mar 25, 2013 at 9:52 AM

    Somehow someway someone on this team will make it to the league so u should shut up and stick to what u know best NOTHING

    • florida727 - Mar 26, 2013 at 9:37 AM

      And you should try Hooked On Phonics…

  4. md22mdrx - Mar 25, 2013 at 10:50 AM

    Are they the most surprising team of all time? No. That would be Butler getting to the championship game the first time.

    The issue is that they are WAAAY underseeded. Usually a team that is a 15 seed is smaller (like Harvard), obviously less athletic (like St. Louis), etc. FGCU is LEGIT. They have size. They have a Steve Nash-esque PG. Their players can jump through the roof …. even the white guys lol. They did not look out of place in the least in EITHER game they played. This is not normal for a 15. They had already beaten MIAMI this year as well. The selection committee, I’m assuming, just didn’t know much about them. I think the selection committee made some huge seeding errors in this tourney overall. Oregon is not a 12 and FGCU is not a 15.

  5. md22mdrx - Mar 25, 2013 at 10:53 AM

    Wasn’t me either ….

    But it may have been if I would have ever seen them play ….

    Georgetown is almost a guaranteed early loss in the tourney and these FGCU kids are for real.

  6. flosox - Mar 25, 2013 at 11:02 AM

    I did…but it’s my undergrad alma matter (UF grad school; uh oh). I caught two games at Alico Arena this year and a few on ESPN 3 and I have to share that this is no surprise to me. I knew about Georgetown’s previous record in the first round and I know how we play when the competition is the best.

    I will go on record to say I saw it coming in the first matchup. I did however have them losing to OK.

    Go Eagles!!!

    • flosox - Mar 25, 2013 at 11:03 AM



  7. jlinatl - Mar 25, 2013 at 11:21 AM

    The Miami win was big but the conference isn’t very good. It’s been a great run for them. It certainly is in the discussion of best cinderella story ever now. If they pull another improbably win I think they to are.

    Wtih all the spotlight they are getting, it should help them with recruiting so they will likely be able to stay on top in the conference moving forward. And it is a very nice, very laid back campus. I toured it a when my daughter was looking at schools.

    The question becomes… can they hold onto their coach?

  8. 1981titan - Mar 25, 2013 at 10:58 PM

    No. The 1978 (48 team field I believe) Cal State Fullerton Titans were so poorly known that Al Mcguire did not even know the schools nickname (Titans) when he was broadcasting one of their games. They beat New Mexico (Michael Cooper & Co) in the Lobogate game. Came back to beat University of San Francisco with Bill Cartwright and I believe Quintin Daily to make the elite 8. Lost the Arkansas by three when they had Sidney Montcrief & Ron Brewer.

  9. jollyjoker2 - Mar 26, 2013 at 6:13 PM

    Your going to pick a couple of wins over villinova / georgetown in the finals? Wow – person writing this not ver bright.

    • gopherz - Mar 28, 2013 at 1:05 PM

      you are even LESS BRIGHT; A real EGG-HEAD;

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