Holy cow. Florida Gulf Coast is in the Sweet 16. That's going to be the story until games tip off Friday in Arlington, Texas. The sheer improbability of a No. 15 seed making the Sweet 16 is interesting enough, but toss in an entrepreneur coach with a supermodel wife, and the tale gets too juicy to pass up. But once the ball goes up at Jerry Jones' Football Basketball Emporium and House of Chicken and Waffles, the story becomes less about the Eagles' improbable run and more about how long they can survive in a group with three other teams that -- given the proper set of matchups and circumstances -- can win the national title.
Florida, Kansas and Michigan all have been ranked No. 2 or No. 1 at some point this season. All three are deep and boast a wealth of ways to beat opponents. This group contains perhaps the No. 1 pick in this year's NBA draft (Kansas guard Ben McLemore), possibly the nation's best point guard (Michigan's Trey Burke) and the only team in the nation (Florida) that lands in the top five in Ken Pomeroy's rankings in both adjusted offense and adjusted defense.
Because of this, Friday night in north Texas sets up as possibly the most interesting night of this year's tournament. Cinderella will try to keep dancing against a Florida team that is hoping to make the Elite Eight for the third consecutive season. In the other matchup, top-seeded Kansas faces a Michigan team that fired on all cylinders for the first time in weeks in its win against VCU on Saturday in the round of 32.
One of two things will happen this weekend. Either Florida Gulf Coast will make history and become the ultimate fan favorite at the Final Four, or the winner of the South Region will head to Atlanta with an excellent shot of leaving as the national champ.
Florida Gulf Coast. Obviously, it's the Eagles. But don't discount the crew from Del Boca Dunka. After edging Georgetown, Florida Gulf Coast pounded San Diego State. Remember, this is the team that opened the season with a win against eventual ACC champ Miami. Had schedules worked out, it might have seen the Gators in a preseason scrimmage, but coaches Andy Enfield and Billy Donovan couldn't work out the logistics. The Eagles will not be scared of Florida, and that attitude will come from the top down. Enfield came to Florida Gulf Coast after spending five years on the staff at Florida State, so he holds an advanced degree in Gator-hating. OK, maybe it's more like an advanced degree in Gator-respecting.
"I know a lot of the players on Florida's team," Enfield said Sunday. "I know Billy Donovan and their coaching staff. I recruited a lot of their players at Florida State. They are great people. We have a tremendous amount of respect for them, the players and the coaching staff, and I just think Coach Donovan is one of the best coaches in the country and has been for many, many years. We competed against Florida when I was at Florida State. I believe I'm 3-2 against the Gators as an assistant coach."
Can Michigan duplicate its sterling first-weekend performance? With the exception of an off day for Burke in the round of 64, the Wolverines clicked in just about every way in Auburn Hills. Glenn Robinson III and Tim Hardaway Jr. each averaged 17.5 points. Burke distributed and defended well. The Wolverines found a new weapon in freshman center Mitch McGary, who joined the starting lineup for the South Dakota State game and dominated on the glass and in parts of the game that don't show up in the box score. Michigan hasn't always been able to make all these pieces work together seamlessly in the same game. It will have to do it for a third consecutive time to beat Kansas and advance to the Elite Eight.
Erik Murphy. Murphy is a flex forward who came to Gainesville primarily as a shooter but who has developed his game to include some of the more traditional activities for a 6-foot-10, 230-pounder. He's a tough matchup for anyone, and if he gets hot from the outside, he leaves opponents two choices. Help with a guard and possibly leave another sharpshooter open, or let Murphy keep drilling shots.
No. 4 Michigan vs. No. 1 Kansas. McLemore can't do much worse than the two-point, 0-for-9 from the field showing he posted in the Jayhawks' round of 32 win against North Carolina, so expect a better game from him against Michigan. The most interesting matchup should be in the post, where Michigan's McGary will face an elite opponent for the first time since becoming the starter. Kansas seven-footer Jeff Withey scored 16 points and grabbed 16 rebounds against the Tar Heels, and he'll challenge McGary in ways he hasn't been challenged yet. McGary might still be the strongest player on the floor, but he won't be the biggest.
Team With The Most At Stake
Kansas. The Jayhawks have the No. 1 seed, and they are trying to get back to the national title game for a second consecutive season. That said, the Gators and Wolverines should feel pressure as well. All three teams have the talent to get out of this region and then stay in Atlanta through Monday night.
Number to Ponder
0-6. That's Florida's record in games decided by single digits. The Gators haven't found a go-to guy in crunch time. Last time they had the chance to win a close game, Murphy couldn't find a decent shot in the SEC tournament final against Ole Miss. Of course, a number such as this can be deceiving. As Pomeroy pointed out in his blog, the Gators have a poor record in close games in part because they have crushed opponents in the games they've won.
Michigan. If the Wolverines can maintain the chemistry they showed this past weekend, they're one of the tourney's toughest outs.