The beauty of March Madness is that it manages to keep surprising us well past the point where we should probably know better. Though it certainly helps that people keep founding new directional schools.
Consider all of the warning signs that maybe, possibly should have prompted us to click next to Florida Gulf Coast on our respective interactive brackets. For one thing, two No. 15 seeds pulled off upsets just last year. Also, FGCU had already beaten one of this year’s other No. 2 seeds, Miami, in an early-season matchup. And its opponent, Georgetown, had lost to double-digit seeds in its past four tourney appearances. A John Thompson III-coached team losing in the Round of 64 to a mid-major has become a near-annual tradition.
And yet, just 0.9 percent of you picked against the Hoyas in SI’s Bracket Challenge. To be clear, I don’t blame the rest of you. I didn’t pick Florida Gulf Coast either. In fact, in the interest of full disclosure, I myself did not realize there was a Florida Gulf Coast University in Division I prior to this basketball season.
But the most surprising aspect of this year’s most stunning tourney upset was not the fact that FGCU existed, or that it notched just the seventh-ever 15-over-2 upset (three of which occurred before the school opened its doors in 1997). It’s the way the Eagles played. Far from the stereotypical scrappy Cinderella that plays with workmanlike discipline or just hits a bunch of threes, FGSU had swagger. Brett Comer, Sherwood Brown, Chase Fieler and Eddie Murray flat-out flew past the Hoyas, embodied by Comer’s audacious, late-game underhand lob to Fieler for a thunderous alley-oop, which, given the gravity of the moment, may just be the most sensational NCAA tournament dunk since Grant Hill against Kansas.
“I've got some crazy dudes on my team,” said FGCU coach and new American male hero Andy Enfield, "so when [Comer] threw that, I thought the ball was coming to me. I was like, where is that going.? … I don't know where the ball is going half the time, and then usually it winds up in a guy's hand and he's either dunking or laying it in. I'm like, great pass, Brett.”
Enfield’s team was flat out fun to watch. They push the ball ahead. They go for the rim. It was all so refreshing given the fact we spent much of the day – most of the past two days, actually – watching an array of uninspiring teams throw up piles and piles of bricks.
Friday began with a nearly unwatchable sludge-fest between Wisconsin and Ole Miss in which the Rebels shot just 39 percent and still put on a virtual clinic when compared with the Badgers’ 15-of-59 (25 percent) nightmare. Of course, if there’s one player you’d choose to watch relentlessly misfire from three, it’s Marshall Henderson. Ole Miss’ polarizing gunslinger/pseudo WWE character finished 6-of-21 from the field and 3-of-12 from beyond the arc. Even LeBron James thought that was a bit much. But a couple of Henderson treys down the stretch made all the difference in the Rebels’ 57-46 upset. Just let him tell you.
Elsewhere, both Illinois (against Colorado) and La Salle (against Kansas State) made exactly three field goals apiece in the second half of their games … and won. The Buffs, down 16 early in the second half, went on a 21-0 run to briefly take the lead, then made just two buckets over the last nine minutes. The Explorers blew an 18-point halftime lead, falling behind by two with 6:17 left, before hitting the seven free throws necessary to prevail.
You take the bad with the good in the Round of 64, which, between the top-of-the-bracket mismatches and mid-bracket mediocrity, is bound to include a bevy of blowouts (Florida 79, Northwestern State 47; Miami 78, Pacific 49) and bad shooting (UCLA’s 31.7 percent field goal percentage against Minnesota; Oklahoma’s 24 percent three-point mark against San Diego State).
But it’s all worth it for that One Shining Moment – Florida Gulf Coast over Georgetown. It didn’t even matter that there was no buzzer-beater, or even any last-second drama. If anything, the Eagles’ dominance made their moment in the sun that much more enthralling. Their swagger on the court fit perfectly with their dorm rooms on the beach and their coach with his supermodel wife.
If you’re the type of fan who enjoys Marshall Henderson doing Gator chomps, you had to love Comer throwing that impudent lob smack in the face of the co-Big East champions. And if you’re the type of fan who can’t stand Marshall Henderson … you still probably loved Florida Gulf Coast. Many of the tournament’s brightest stars coming in -- Marcus Smart, Otto Porter, Anthony Bennett -- are already eliminated, but the beauty of the tourney is it creates new stars like Chase Fieler.
It’s OK you’d never heard of him. It’s more fun to be surprised.
A-10 going out in style
On Wednesday, the new Big East held its big Garden party, officially announcing a 2013-14 lineup that includes current Atlantic 10 members Xavier and Butler. A-10 commissioner Bernadette McGlade issued a statement wishing the defectors well. Then her conference’s NCAA participants went out and began a historic run.
Through Friday, the A-10 is 6-0 in this tourney, which includes La Salle’s First Four victory against Boise State. League members VCU (against Michigan) Saint Louis (against Oregon) and Butler (against Marquette) all have decent shots of reaching the Sweet 16 on Saturday. Either No. 13 seed La Salle or 12th seed Ole Miss will be heading to Los Angeles next weekend. Only ninth seed Temple, which fended off an NC State comeback Friday, will be a considerable underdog in the next round, against East top seed Indiana.
With the addition this season of Butler and VCU, both with their unique systems, the A-10’s diversity may have helped prepare teams for the Dance.
“Whether it’s UMass, VCU, Butler or us, there’s so many unique styles of play in the A-10,” St. Louis assistant Jim Whitesell said Friday. “It’s a lot different from what you see in the Big Ten, the Big East. Every night it’s a different style. It helps the A-10 in this tournament.”
These guys win a lot … just not in March
Nate Silver, the noted political statistician for the New York Times, made an interesting bracketology observation a couple of years back. He uses the preseason AP poll as a tourney projection tool because, he found, teams that overachieve relative to preseason expectations often disappoint in the tourney. Prophetically, he used Notre Dame – a No. 2 seed that year – as his example. The Irish fell to 10th seed Florida State in the Round of 32.
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey stands among a trio of losing coaches Friday that are making a career out of regular season surprises followed by postseason disappointments. The aforementioned Thompson is obviously the most glaring example. Since reaching the Final Four with Jeff Green and Roy Hibbert in 2007, Thompson’s Hoyas have fallen to 10th-seeded Davidson (2008), been blown out by 14th-seeded Ohio (2010) and 11th seed VCU (2011), lost last year to 11th seed NC State and, now, Florida Gulf Coast. “ Trust me, more than anyone on this earth I've tried to analyze it, think about it, look at it, think about what we should do differently, and I don't know,” said Thompson, who one prominent Web site named its national coach of the year.
Meanwhile, Big Ten coach of the year Bo Ryan suffered his fifth loss in seven seasons to a double-digit seed. And seventh seed Notre Dame’s 76-58 loss to Iowa State marked three-time Big East coach of the year Brey’s fifth such loss in his past six tournaments. At this point, if you pick any of these guys’ teams far in your bracket, you might as well throw your entry fee money down a toilet instead.
Looking ahead Kansas was not exactly a confidence-inspiring No. 1 seed this season, and Friday night ’s 64-57 win over Western Kentucky did not change that perception. Much like Gonzaga’s close call against Southern on Thursday, failure to dominate a No. 16 seed does not normally foretell a deep tourney run. And in the Jayhawks’ case, No. 8 seed North Carolina – which shot 52 percent from three in a 78-71 win over Villanova -- is fully capable of pulling that upset Sunday. … The game I’m most looking forward to Sunday: Duke-Creighton. As always, Doug McDermott was the man against Cincinnati, with 27 points and 11 rebounds. He’ll likely be matched up against Blue Devils star Ryan Kelly … Minnesota’s 83-63 rout of UCLA gave the Big Ten a 6-1 mark for the round. The 11th seeded Gophers face a tough date Sunday with third seed Florida, while embattled Bruins coach Ben Howland likely faces a pink slip shortly upon his return to Westwood. Stay tuned.