Michael Fly had just finished having dinner with his girlfriend on Friday night when his phone began buzzing non-stop.
Friends of the Florida Gulf Coast assistant coach wanted to make sure he was watching the biggest upset in NCAA tournament history unfold.
“All my friends were texting me, ‘Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God, are you seeing this?'” Fly said. “I had to get to a TV pretty quick.”
When Fly sat down to watch the final 10 minutes of 16th-seeded UMBC’s stunning 74-54 rout of top-seeded Virginia, he flashed back to five years ago when it was Florida Gulf Coast waylaying some of college basketball’s top teams. He recalled the euphoria of toppling second-seeded Georgetown and seventh-seeded San Diego State in the 2013 NCAA tournament and the challenge of refocusing the Eagles in between games.
Of the 29 teams seeded 14th or worse that have pulled first-round NCAA tournament upsets, Florida Gulf Coast’s famed 2013 Dunk City team is one of only three that have advanced to the Sweet 16. The other 26 teams rocketed back to earth in a hurry, dropping their round of 32 game by an average of 11.8 points apiece.
Middle Tennessee followed its stunning 2016 upset of second-seeded Michigan State with a 75-50 shellacking against Syracuse. Georgia State offset its buzzer-beating victory over third-seeded Baylor in 2015 with a 75-67 loss to Xavier. Norfolk State fared the worst, enduring an 84-50 rout against Florida in 2012 two days after ousting second-seeded Missouri.
The talent disparity between No. 14 and 15 seeds and their second-round opponents is typically part of the issue, but coaches who have prepared lesser-seeded teams for those games insist it’s not the only explanation.
A second-round opponent is less likely to overlook your team after watching you oust a top-three seed two days earlier. It’s also difficult to refocus your players on the goal at hand after 36 hours of calls, texts, interviews and SportsCenter highlights.
“The toughest thing is to get 18-, 19-, 20-year-old guys to focus and give a consistent effort,” said Anthony Evans, who coached the 2011-12 Norfolk State team that is one of seven No. 15 seeds ever to win an NCAA tournament game. “For them, it was like we had won the championship after we beat Missouri. We hadn’t beat a team like that all year. You get a big win like that on a big stage, and sometimes it’s hard to get your kids to refocus and come back and do the same things.”
UMBC’s coaching staff is undoubtedly trying to figure out how to guard against a similar let-down when it faces ninth-seeded Kansas State on Sunday evening. The Retrievers have received so much attention since recording the first NCAA tournament victory by a No. 16 seed that the school’s website crashed, its Twitter handle gained 75,000 followers and its social media czar has become an overnight celebrity.
Point guard K.J. Maura told reporters in Charlotte on Saturday that his phone now freezes every time he opens a new application because it was so overloaded with new messages last night. He and his teammates didn’t fall asleep until 5 a.m. after Friday night’s game because they were so excited.
“We’ve got to encourage our guys, and I already have, to kind of turn the page,” UMBC coach Ryan Odom said. “The biggest thing is, do you want to be done now or do you want to try to put your best foot forward and continue on? We’re playing an excellent team, all right, that easily could dismantle us. We’ve got to do a great job of focusing, just like we have every other game that we’ve played.”
One of the few teams in UMBC’s position to achieve that goal was Florida Gulf Coast. The Eagles played with the same focus, confidence and swagger in the second round against San Diego State as they did two days earlier against Georgetown.
The process of instilling that mindset began before the NCAA tournament even started. Ex-Florida Gulf Coast coach Andy Enfield urged the Eagles to play with no fear, to believe they could win and to stick to the same style of play that had helped them get that far.
In Florida Gulf Coast’s deliriously happy room after the Georgetown upset, Enfield doubled down on that message. He told the Eagles they should not be satisfied with just one win when they had a real opportunity for more.
“We were the underdog, but Coach Enfield did a terrific job of reiterating the idea that, ‘Hey we’re just as good as these guys. We can win this game'” former Florida Gulf Coast assistant Marty Richter said. “Our guys felt that Coach Enfield believed in them, and that went a long ways. They didn’t think it was just lip service.”
Something else that Enfield emphasized was that if Florida Gulf Coast could stay in striking distance, they would eventually arrive at a critical juncture in the game when the favorite realizes it can lose and the underdog realizes it can win. It was Enfield’s goal to make sure his team kept attacking rather than playing not to lose.
“At that point, if they were able to keep playing carefree, confident basketball, they have a chance to win,” Enfield said. “If you get conservative at that point as an underdog and start to play differently, then often that will cost you.”
Enfield’s team earned its Dunk City moniker by going for transition alley-oops when other underdogs might have been tempted to burn clock. Five years later, UMBC followed suit by showing no fear against Virginia, hoisting dagger 3-pointer after dagger 3-pointer no matter how much time remained on the shot clock.
It’s Fly’s opinion that UMBC should be able to maintain that same mindset Sunday against Kansas State. The bigger challenge would be not allowing its focus to wane during the five-day layoff should the Retrievers advance to the Sweet 16.
“That next week was a zoo,” Fly said. “We had Good Morning America, the Today Show and ESPN on our campus. It was such a crazy deal that it was hard to refocus our guys. Your kids go from total unknowns outside of their own town to national celebrities. A quick turnaround is doable, but if they’re able to win this next one, the even harder thing will be the week in between.”
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