Florida Gulf Coast stars in Week 1 of NCAA tourney
The basketball blue bloods from Louisville, Kansas and Indiana made it through.
So did the iron men from La Salle.
Then there’s Florida Gulf Coast, a school hardly anyone had heard of just a few days ago.
Improbably, they’re still playing, too — a tongue-wagging, heel-clicking, arm-flapping collection of no-names who turned the opening week of the NCAA tournament into their coming-out party.
It was impressive enough being the first No. 15 seed to advance to the round of 16. But the Eagles really grabbed everyone’s attention with their running, dunking style and the unbridled joy they showed on the court. In a way, they were like the Harlem Globetrotters, charming the crowds while a pair of supposedly superior teams took on the role of the Washington Generals.
First, second-seeded Georgetown went down by 10 points. Then, seventh-seeded San Diego State fell by the same convincing margin.
“We’re doing something special out here,” said Sherwood Brown, who likes to stick out his tongue after every big shot. “We’ve been told that this is what college basketball is all about.”
Now, Florida Gulf Coast (26-10) is off to Cowboys Stadium in suburban Dallas for the South Regional semifinals. And, in a most interesting twist, they’ll face the flagship team from the Sunshine State, the No. 3-seeded Florida Gators (28-7).
“We’re really blessed and we’re really happy to be here right now,” Brown said. “But we’ve still got a lot more games to play, hopefully, so we’re going to go back home and get our heads back straight and get ready to play against the University of Florida.”
The Eagles weren’t the only surprise from the first week of the tournament. No. 13 seed La Salle made its first NCAA tournament appearance in 21 years one to remember, winning three times in five days to advance to a West Regional semifinal Thursday in Los Angeles against another upstart, ninth-seeded Wichita State (28-8).
After beating Boise State in a First Four game at Dayton, the Explorers (24-9) upset Kansas State and knocked off Mississippi, both of them two-point squeakers. Tyrone Garland banked home a scooping layup with 2 seconds left Sunday for a 76-74 victory over the Rebels, making this La Salle’s deepest run in the tournament since they advanced to the championship game of a 24-team field in 1955.
“It just feels like AAU all over again,” said Ramon Galloway, who led the Explorers with 24 points. “We play a game, go to sleep, wake up, play another game. We’re pretty excited for the whole trip.”
Garland dubbed his winning shot the “Southwest Philly Floater.” For the small, private school, this is a chance to rekindle memories of its former glory, highlighted by a national title in 1954.
“We talked all week about the great La Salle tradition,” coach John Giannini said. “When you come in, you want to bring that back. These guys are doing it right before our eyes.”
Still, for all the excitement generated by a pair of major underdogs, the tournament is largely going according to form. Gonzaga is the only top seed to go down, knocked out by Wichita State. The other three No. 1s are still alive, as well as three No. 2s and three more from the third spot in the brackets.
Louisville has certainly lived up to being the top overall seed, winning its first two NCAA games by an average of 28.5 points. The Cardinals (31-5) will face 12th-seeded Oregon State (28-8) in the first semifinal of the Midwest Regional at Indianapolis. The other pits second-seeded Duke (29-5) against No. 3 Michigan State (27-8).
“We probably can’t play any better,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said after an 82-56 dismantling of Colorado State. “Our guys were magnificent.”
At the moment, the Cardinals are clearly the most impressive team in the tournament.
In the East Regional, for instance, the seedings held up completely but all four of the remaining teams struggled to get through the third round. No. 1 Indiana and No. 4 Syracuse pulled out six-point wins. No. 2 Miami knocked off Illinois by four. No. 3 Marquette edged Butler by two.
The Hoosiers finished their game on a 10-0 run, holding Temple scoreless over the last 3 minutes to survive 58-52.
“That’s what we’ve been doing all year,” sophomore center Cody Zeller said. “We’ve been in a lot of close games throughout the Big Ten especially. We’ve got a mature group that, even though it wasn’t going as well and we wouldn’t get things going for a while, that’s what winners do. You’ve got to survive and advance this time of year. We got some big plays down the stretch and we’re lucky we’re moving on.”
In the semifinals Thursday at Washington, it’s Indiana (29-6) vs. Syracuse (28-9) and Miami (29-6) vs. Marquette (25-8). For Hoosiers star Victor Oladipo, it’s a chance to return home.
“I’m just glad that we’re going. We want to be successful there,” said Oladipo, who was born and raised in the suburbs of the nation’s capital. “It’s going to be fun playing in front of family and friends and all that, but it’s a business trip. We’re on a mission.”
The remaining semis are top-seeded Kansas (31-5) taking on No. 4 Michigan (28-7) in the South, while second-seeded Ohio State (28-7) plays No. 6 Arizona (27-7) in the West.
No one is having more fun than Florida Gulf Coast, which isn’t surprising when you consider the beach-side school in Fort Myers has been around less than two decades and only became eligible for the tournament last year after the transition from a lower division.
In the Eagles’ first trip to the NCAAs, hardly anyone expected them to win one game, much less two. But they’ve been playing like they have nothing to lose, winning over the notoriously tough fans in Philadelphia with soaring dunks, wide smiles and silly antics.
Christophe Varidel, a native of Switzerland, clicked his heels on the way down the court after a big basket against San Diego State. As FGCU pulled away from the Aztecs, some of the bench players waddled around with their arms flapping, apparently trying to imitate the team mascot but looking more like chickens.
Not that anyone cared.
These guys are having a blast.
“They play with a swagger, and they have a right to do that,” said San Diego State’s Steve Fisher, who knows about players with attitude, having coached the Fab Five at Michigan. “You can have that look and feel, but you have to compete and play to earn your spurs, and they’ve done that.”
Indeed they have — a 15th seed that is one of just 16 teams still in the game.
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