Harris: Praising 'Cinderella with swagger'

| Tuesday, March 26, 2013, 12:29 a.m.

Florida Gulf Coast University 81, San Diego State 71.

This is why we fill out brackets and make the NCAA Tournament must-see TV.

These three weeks allow us to stretch our imagination in search of improbabilities that occur only during the month nicknamed March Madness.

And when the winning team comes out of nowhere to defeat opponents with bigger names, it becomes legendary.

Introducing Florida Gulf Coast: Cinderella with swagger.

“When we came into this tournament, no one knew who we were or where we were,” said second-year Florida Gulf Coast coach and Shippensburg native Andy Enfield, who became wealthy on Wall Street before switching professions and becoming a basketball coach. “We're FGCU. Hopefully, people are learning those initials.”

Florida Gulf Coast is treating the American public to gritty play, daring lob passes and rim-rattling dunks in becoming the first No. 15 seed in NCAA Tournament history to advance to the Sweet 16. The Eagles face No. 3 seed Florida on Friday for a spot in the Elite Eight.

“I was coaching when Hank Gathers died, and we played Loyola Marymount in the second game of the tournament in 1990,” recalled San Diego State coach Steve Fisher. “We had a lot of guys back from a team that had won a national championship the year before, and they ran us off the floor. They had a momentum and a flow that captivated not only a community, but the country.

“Florida Gulf Coast is getting that right now.”

Florida Gulf Coast's basketball program is only 11 years old, is in its second season of Division I competition and doesn't have a football team in a state dominated by football. The Eagles didn't win the regular-season crown in the Atlantic Sun Conference featuring little-known members Northern Kentucky, Lipscomb and Kennesaw State. But FGCU won the conference tournament to earn its NCAA bid and then defeated favored Georgetown and San Diego State by a combined 20 points in the NCAA Tournament.

Florida Gulf Coast's top players were mostly overlooked and unwanted by most recruiters.

“To be honest, I didn't have a choice,” said senior Sherwood Brown, the Atlantic Sun Player of the Year who attended FGCU because it was the only school to offer him a scholarship. “We're doing something special. This is what college basketball is all about.”

Sophomore point guard Brett Comer was a high school teammate of NBA first-round draft pick Austin Rivers but signed with Florida Gulf Coast after receiving only one other scholarship offer, from Florida Atlantic.

Junior forward Chase Fieler of Parkersburg, W.Va. — whose tomahawk dunk late in the second half against Georgetown is considered the play of the NCAA Tournament — also had few college options.

Comer said Enfield encourages the Eagles to play pressure-free and with an attitude. Not only did the Eagles beat Georgetown and San Diego State by double-digits, they displayed their full range of emotions during the process — mugging for the cameras, sticking out their tongue following big baskets and sparking the reserves to dance on the bench.

“We're going to be in full attack mode the entire game,” said Comer, who compiled 24 assists against Georgetown and San Diego State, with 10 of those assists resulting in dunks.

Enfield constructed a free-wheeling team in his image following stints as an NBA assistant at Boston and Milwaukee, and another five years at Florida State.

It was at Florida State where Enfield met his wife, former supermodel Amanda Marcum.

Their first date was at a NIT basketball game between St. John's and Virginia. Enfield couldn't find a suitable restaurant near the arena in Queens, so they went to Taco Bell.

“I got her a nice burrito and we sat behind the bench, and I figured if she still likes me after Taco Bell and a basketball game ...” Enfield told reporters. “She's just a down-to-earth person, and what a sacrifice she has made to give up from flying all over the world to doing fashion shoots for some of the biggest designers on the planet to moving to Tallahassee, Fla., which is a nice place — but it's not New York and it's not Milan and it's not Sydney and it's not Paris.”

The rise of Florida Gulf Coast from obscurity to the Sweet 16 is what separates the NCAA Tournament from other major sporting events.

In less than a week, FGCU's odds of winning the national championship has improved from 2,000 to 1 to 40 to 1.

No one believes the Eagles can win the title — other than the Eagles, of course. But given these stunning turn of events, they've earned the right to try.

John Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jharris@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JHarris_Trib.

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