Florida Gulf Coast advanced within a victory of the NCAA tournament last season and this season, but the unheralded upstarts that played in the Atlantic Sun title game last March bore only faint resemblance to the confident team that took the floor Saturday.
When the sixth-seeded Eagles shocked Mercer and USC Upstate to earn a crack at heavily favored Belmont last season, they were just giddy to unexpectedly reach the title game. This year's team won 21 regular season games and finished just a game out of first place in the Atlantic Sun, so it took a far more poised, businesslike approach to Saturday's title game at top-seeded Mercer.
Despite playing essentially a road game against a Mercer team that previously hadn't lost on its home floor this season, FGCU outplayed the top-seeded Bears in the second half to break open a back-and-forth game. Brett Comer scored 21 points to lead the Eagles to an 88-75 win that secured the school's first NCAA tournament berth just six years after it began the transition to Division I and two years after it became postseason eligible.
"It's a great moment for our program and our school," FGCU coach Andy Enfield said. "Last year, we went to the championship game on pure adrenaline, but we weren't good enough to win it. We weren't ready. This year was entirely different. We're much more experienced. We've played a very good, challenging schedule. Our players were confident, and they felt we were ready to win this tournament."
FGCU's victory marks the culmination of the program's rise from Atlantic Sun bottom feeder to contender during Enfield's two-year tenure. The Eagles lost 20 0r more games under Dave Balza each of their first four seasons in Division I, but Enfield led them to a respectable 15-17 record last season and has the program 24-10 this season after Saturday's win.
It's no surprise Enfield has been successful considering he was viewed as a rising star before he even coached his first game at FGCU.
An elite shooter at Division III Johns Hopkins University, Enfield began his coaching career as a skill instructor for professional players and parlayed that into assistant coaching jobs in the NBA. He joined Leonard Hamilton's staff at Florida State in 2006, earning the reputation as a tireless recruiter and helping spearhead the Seminoles' emergence as a perennial NCAA tournament team.
Enfield took over at FGCU in spring 2011 with no timetable in mind for how long it would take to build the fledgling program into a winner, so he insists he is not surprised success came so quickly.
"My goal was to work every day with our coaching staff to make the program better," he said. "That was the only goal. Really what we focused on was making the individual players better, upgrade the talent level with recruiting, and develop a style of play that could be successful."
The players who have taken FGCU to the top of the Atlantic Sun are a mix of holdovers from Balza's tenure and new recruits brought in by Enfield.
Senior guard Sherwood Brown and junior forward Chase Fieler both came to FGCU under Balza but have blossomed into stars the past two seasons. Sweet-shooting Bernard Thompson and Comer were the first two recruits Enfield signed soon after taking the job in April 2011.
It was all four of those guys who played a key role in FGCU preventing Mercer from making its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1985.
Brown, Thompson and Comer each sank 3-pointers during an 11-2 run to start the second half that gave FGCU a 49-38 lead. Fieler had a dunk and transition layup on back-to-back possessions a few minutes later, extending the lead to 15 after Mercer had rallied to cut it to five. Brown, Fieler, Thompson and Comer combined for 63 of FGCU's 88 points.
"The key to the game was the tempo," Enfield said. "We tried to speed the tempo up, and our defense was the catalyst for that. We were aggressive, we challenged shots, we rebounded and we pushed the ball up court most of the game. We didn't expect to score 88 points, but we certainly didn't want the game to be in the 50s."
The strength of the Atlantic Sun took a hit this year with Belmont's departure, but Enfield was candid with his displeasure when told many mock brackets have FGCU projected as a No. 15 or No. 16 NCAA tournament seed. He noted the team's November stunner against ACC champion Miami, a solid win over Loyola (Md.) and credible performances in losses against Iowa State, Duke and St. John's as proof the Eagles deserve more respect.
"I think a 15 and 16 seed is way too high," Enfield said. "Our RPI, our wins and the fact we beat Mercer twice, who by the way beat Alabama and Florida State this year, I don't see how we're a 15 or 16 seed. I think we need to be higher than that based on the season we've had and the teams we've beaten."
Regardless of where they're seeded, the Eagles are assured of an NCAA bid. For a school that lost 82 games in four seasons from 2007 to 2011, that's worth celebrating.