This year, Cinderella could be wearing sandals to the Dance.
Every March, a host of directional schools nobody's ever heard of are thrust into the national consciousness, if only for a weekend, until they're bounced out of the NCAA tournament. The South region presents a perfect example: 15th-seed Florida Gulf Coast University. Easy win for Georgetown, right?
Well, maybe not. Stat wizard Nate Silver, who predicts just about everything correctly, gives FGCU a 10 percent chance of advancing to the Round of 32. That's tiny, of course, but it's the highest of any 15 seed, and not without reason. FGCU has already beaten a No. 2 seed – Miami – by 12 points this season.
FGCU has one of the most unique stories in the tournament. The university has only had students on campus since 1997, has been eligible for the tournament for only two years, lost 20 games in 2010-11, and has a head coach, Andy Enfield, who had only ever been an assistant before arriving on campus two seasons ago. And when he did arrive, Enfield watched his leading scorer, rebounder and assist man all transfer to other schools.
"A lot of people called me up and said, 'Are you crazy? You have no players left. You guys are gonna be terrible,' " Enfield says.
Making matters worse, most recruits thought FGCU was a JuCo in the Florida Panhandle. It's not. It's in Ft. Myers, a South Florida vacation spot where the beaches sport some of the softest sand in the world.
FGCU may be a directional school, but it's the Gulf Coast part that gives it a recruiting tool most others don't have. Dorms there overlook a beach on a lake, just a few minutes from the Gulf of Mexico. That's where junior forward Chase Fieler lays out "four or five times a week." He knows most of the lifeguards, and water sports are free for students, including wakeboarding, canoeing, paddle boarding and tubing.
"If you don't see it here," Fieler says, "you can't picture how good it is."
The beach is certainly a draw for a school that's only in its second year of tournament eligibility after a mandatory five-year transition period to Division I. But as Fieler says, without seeing it, recruits won't know how good it is. Enfield's task is to make sure they at least see it.
Forty-three now, Enfield was an assistant to Mike Dunleavy and Rick Pitino in the NBA and an assistant to Leonard Hamilton at Florida State in the ACC before landing the job at FGCU. He was hired on March 31, 2011, a week before the birth of his only son. He admits he recruited via phone from the seat beside his wife's hospital bed, both before and after the delivery. There he was, calling up preps and their families while Amanda had her IVs changed.
"I didn't even know the nurse was in the room," Enfield says. "I'm rolling. And I didn't know anything about FGCU. Then my wife says, 'Can you please be quiet?' "
Amanda, a former swimsuit model, forgave him, and the recruits bought in.
Enfield's initial group of preps turned into the core of what is now a dangerous underdog team. Brett Comer has led the Atlantic Sun in assists for two straight seasons. Bernard Thompson was the conference's defensive player of the year. Eric McKnight transferred from Iowa State.
They've grown as players because of Enfield, who has a nice combination of offense and defense in his background. He learned about scoring from Dunleavy in Milwaukee, and he's brought that to FGCU in the form of not only a fast-paced, dunk-heavy offense, but also the kind of little basketball lessons that can bring rapid improvement during a season.
Fieler says Enfield noticed his left thumb would turn too far to the right on the release of his jump shot when he got tired. The coach told the 6-foot-8 West Virginia native to make sure his hands stayed about six inches apart during his follow through. Fieler's three-point average jumped 14 percent in two years. He's not the only one who has been transformed. Leading scorer Sherwood Brown, a senior, has doubled his points and rebounds per game since his first season.
"It's details no one notices," Fieler says. "I don't even see it when he says it."
On defense, Enfield has borrowed a lot from Hamilton, who is known as one of the best defensive head coaches in college basketball. In fact, FGCU runs the same defense as the 'Noles. So you have a directional team inspired by a leading defensive program and a leading NBA offensive mind. Not too shabby for a 15-seed.
As for practice? Life's a beach there, too. Enfield often limits time in the gym to less than two hours, stressing fun and focus. He wants his guys running from whistle to whistle during games, so he favors bursts of intensity over mind-numbing drills. "We're not going to scream and yell," he explains. "We're going to hold you accountable for what you do off the court. If you do, we're going to have a lot of fun together."
It seems to be working. The 2.91 GPA is the best-ever for the young program and the Eagles went from a 15-16 record last year to 24-10 this season.
It's easy to relax at FGCU. Fieler says he often studies at the beach, sitting in a lounge chair with the sound of the water lapping near his feet. He even spent a little while on the sand on Selection Sunday.
"The water was a little cold," he deadpans. "There were a couple clouds, so we didn't get as tanned as we planned."
There will be plenty of time for sun in April. For now, Georgetown awaits them Friday in Philadelphia, where there's a 10 percent chance of brackets being burned.
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