College Basketball Nation: Bernard Thompson

It doesn’t seem right to call this group Others, because in college basketball, the Others are what make the game so special.

This is the crew that puts the madness in March, the slipper on Cinderella’s foot and really just all of the clichés into the sport.

Without them, what would we have? Oh right, college football.

Another year gone by and we are still searching for the ultimate Others moment -- when a 16-seed will beat a 1-seed -- but that doesn’t mean this crew didn’t have its share of moments this season. They did.

As the gap between college basketball’s haves and have-nots continues to shrink (at least until autonomy for the Powerball 5 comes into play), these teams are pulling off upsets that are upsets only on paper and mostly because we don’t know what else to call them.

Kind of like others.

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Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsMercer celebrated its NCAA tournament win over Duke -- which was an upset in seed only -- in style. Odds are it won't be the last time an Atlantic Sun team celebrates either.
What we saw this season: Beware the Atlantic Sun. That was the resounding message delivered this season. A year after Florida Gulf Coast dunked its way to the Sweet 16, Mercer danced its way all over Duke. The Bears were an upset in seed only. Anyone who watched the game knows Mercer was in control from start to finish.

But other than the Bears, North Dakota State and Stephen F. Austin, this NCAA tournament was not terribly kind to Cinderella. Those three, along with Harvard and Dayton, were really the only true ball crashers, and only Dayton made it out of the first weekend.

That was sort of surprising, considering the gaudy records some mid- and low-major teams put together, not to mention the less than steady performance from the big boys.

In-conference upsets didn’t help. Heavy favorite Toledo lost to Western Michigan in the MAC tournament final. Green Bay, a 24-game winner, fell to Milwaukee, in the Horizon semifinals. Robert Morris, which upset Kentucky in last year’s NIT, was the victim this time around, beaten by Mount St. Mary’s in the NEC tourney final, and Belmont never made it out of the Ohio Valley Conference tourney.

The common denominator, though, among those that did succeed was the same as it’s always been: experience. As the top team’s rosters get younger and younger thanks to early NBA entrants, they become more and more vulnerable to savvy veteran squads that aren’t intimidated by the big stage.

Mercer counted five seniors among its top six scorers, a mismatch for the inexperienced Blue Devils; Stephen F. Austin’s starting five included three seniors and a junior, a reason for the Lumberjacks’ perfect 18-0 league record; and for North Dakota State, three seniors and one junior carried most of the weight.

What we expect to see next season: Oh heck, why not. Beware the Atlantic Sun. Chase Fieler helped put the dunk in Dunk City. The end of his run will hurt Florida Gulf Coast, but the Eagles return their other four starters, including a tantalizing backcourt in the form of Brett Comer and Bernard Thompson. Those two were part of FGCU’s Sweet 16 run two years ago. Don’t think they won’t be a little hungry to return.

Ditto Toledo. Knocked out of the MAC tourney and unable to crack the NCAA tourney at-large code, the Rockets, 27-game winners this season, will be a team to reckon with. Tod Kowalczyk’s team loses two starters but returns a talented core led by Julius Brown.

And don’t think the Lumberjacks are done either. Stephen F. Austin won 32 games this season and could be as good next season. Jacob Parker, the Southland’s player of the year, is back, as is Thomas Walkup. Brad Underwood also has a nice recruiting class to add to the mix.

Aside from the players, though, the big news for the future is that, for the most part, these schools were able to retain their coaches. This is where big schools go to find their futures, offering bigger, better-paying gigs.

The carrots were waved, but the moves, mostly, didn’t happen. North Dakota State lost Saul Phillips to Ohio University, but Joe Dooley stayed with Florida Gulf Coast and Bob Hoffman, red hot thanks to Mercer’s upset, came back to the Bears.

Continuity on the bench is as crucial as continuity on the rosters for these schools to stay competitive and keep the big boys off balance.

You Gotta See This: Atlantic Sun

October, 8, 2013
10/08/13
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Florida Gulf CoastElsa/Getty ImagesChase Fieler is one of four key members of last year's "Dunk City" squad returning for FGCU.
It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season — from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Up next: What does Dunk City do for an encore?

The story of the 2013 NCAA tournament came baked in about 18 different layers of awesome. It had everything. Not only did the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles beat No. 2-seeded Georgetown and No. 7-seeded San Diego State in the rounds of 64 and 32, respectively, they throttled the Hoyas and Aztecs. Not only were said throttlings delivered, FGCU delivered them by pushing the pace and throwing alley-oops -- not walking it up and hoping for a close game, as so many would-be Cinderellas do -- in a style counter to the slowdown trend pervading college basketball. Not only did the Eagles have an intriguing, smart young coach (Andy Enfield), he had a camera-zooming model of a wife. Not only was FGCU a tiny school no one had heard of, it was a) founded in 1991, six years after this writer was born, and b) it had beach shacks for dorms. Not only was Florida Gulf Coast dubbed "Dunk City," it had local news stations and public works employees playing along. This was peak awesomeness. It was almost too much -- the key word being "almost."

Then, in the Sweet 16, Florida handled its panhandle brethren with relative ease, and it was back to reality. Sure, sure, FGCU basked in the glory for a while. But Enfield was quickly lured to USC and replaced by former Kansas assistant Joe Dooley. Now, as we enter Year 1 of the post-Dunk City era, the biggest Atlantic Sun preseason question goes a little like this: Does Dunk City have a second act?

On its face, there's no reason why it shouldn't. The Eagles return most of their core from last season, including (especially) point guard Brett Comer. Comer, the former AAU teammate of Duke star Austin Rivers, makes Dunk City go; it is both the consistency (Comer finished the season finding teammates for buckets on 45.0 percent of his possessions, second-best in the nation) and the creativity (you remember) of Comer's passing that makes the whole thing go. There are also the finishers: guard Bernard Thompson and forwards Chase Fieler and Eric McKnight are all back. The only notable loss is senior Sherwood Brown. So, that's easy then, isn't it? FGCU is the obvious favorite to win the A-Sun, right?

Not so fast. Don't forget the last part of what made March so face-melting: FGCU wasn't always that good. Or, at the very least, it wasn't as good for most of the season as league-mate Mercer, which won the A-Sun regular-season title at 14-4 and spent most of the season ranked atop the league's efficiency standings. Bob Hoffman's team will lose a huge piece in senior guard Travis Smith, who shot 43.3 percent from 3 last season, but it brings back every other starter, all four of whom will be seniors this year.

Which makes it eminently possible that a team that captivated the entire country for two weeks in March, and that returns the key pieces from that run, won't make it back. And not necessarily because it will be worse, but because another team in its league could be better. Dunks or no -- and just to be clear: there will be a lot of dunks -- that's a league to watch.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Leading scorer Sherwood Brown was a walk-on. Guard Bernard Thompson’s awkward shot scared most schools away. Dunking phenom Eddie Murray scored 11 points in an entire season two years ago.

Point guard Brett Comer led the Atlantic Sun Conference in assists this season. Not bad for a guy who had no idea how to play the position when he arrived in college.

These are the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles, the first No. 15 seed to advance to the Sweet 16 -- and the team you’ll be rooting for Friday evening.

Unless you’re a Florida fan, of course.

The third-seeded Gators (28-7) will try to avoid becoming FGCU’s latest upset victim when the teams square off in the South Regional semifinals at Cowboys Stadium. Andy Enfield’s squad opened NCAA tournament play by defeating 2-seed Georgetown and 7-seed San Diego State.

“We know the nation is behind us,” Murray said. “Everybody loves a Cinderella.”

Especially this Cinderella, with its motley crew of a roster filled with basketball vagabonds and unlikely success stories. The Eagles’ personalities make them easy to root for -- and their loose, high-flying, slam-dunking style of play has made them the must-watch team of the tournament.

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Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsLeonard Livingston and FGCU are enjoying the ride to the Sweet 16, where No. 3 Florida is next.
“Our main goal is to have fun,” Comer said. “You’ll see Sherwood Brown with some kiss-blowing, some flexing. You’ll see Christophe Varidel do a heel click after a 3. It’s just the way we are.”

And that’s fine with Enfield.

“It’s the personality of our players and our team and our culture,” he said. “What you’re seeing is genuine. They enjoy being here. They enjoy playing the game of basketball.”

The Eagles (26-10) have certainly earned the respect of their opponent.

“It’s tremendous what they’ve done,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “It’s been a great ride for them. NCAA tournament-history-wise, this has never happened. It’s a state-of-the-art, new thing.”

And the Florida Gulf Coast campus is relishing it.

When forward Chase Fieler walked into the bookstore on the school's Fort Myers campus this week, he said the place was so packed he could hardly move.

“You can’t really describe the atmosphere on campus,” he said. “It’s just been a busy week, with the attention and the media being around. It’s exciting.

“At the first news conferences [last week], people weren’t really sure what questions to ask us. They looked at us with blank stares. Now they’re asking us how we’re preparing for a No. 3 team, or they have questions for us personally. No matter what happens from here on out, this is something we’ll never forget.”

WHOM TO WATCH

Florida’s Erik Murphy, Patric Young, Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario each average between 10.3 and 12.8 points per game. Guard Scottie Wilbekin is the Gators’ defensive specialist. Florida Gulf Coast’s Eddie Murray and Chase Fieler have produced some of the NCAA tournament’s best dunks thus far.

WHAT TO WATCH

Florida Gulf Coast is the first 15-seed to advance to the Sweet 16, so it’d obviously be a huge feat if the Eagles ended up in the Elite Eight. Florida has lost in the Elite Eight each of the past two seasons.

STAT TO WATCH

Billy Donovan’s Gators have been brutal in close contests this season. Florida is 0-6 in games decided by single digits.

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