- Jason King
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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.
“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.