WASHINGTON (AFP) – Hometown favorite UCLA may have been eliminated from contention, but Southland residents still have plenty of reasons to tune into the NCAA men’s basketball tournament as the “Sweet 16″ phase kicks off this week.
The Bruins’ early exit was but one episode in a historic series of upsets that have turned this year’s March Madness on its head. One-seed Gonzaga fell to Wichita State, Harvard improbably picked up its first-ever NCAA tournament victory, and 12th-seed Oregon and 13th-seed LaSalle each pulled out back-to-back victories to clinch spots in the Sweet 16.
But the unmistakable story of the tournament thus far has been Florida Gulf Coast University, the high-leaping speedy squad nicknamed “Dunk City”, who are the unlikeliest Sweet 16 club in the history of March Madness.
On Friday, the little school that was rejected when it sought a pre-season scrimmage against the University of Florida will finally take the court against the Gators to decide a quarter-final spot in the tournament.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) men’s tourmanent sparks millions of people in the United States to create brackets predicting how every team will fare all the way through to the April 8 championship game.
With millions of dollars in television rights payments going to schools and sports fans across the nation transfixed to the games, the tournament shows off future NBA stars and gives unfancied sides a chance to face iconic ones.
That’s where Florida Gulf Coast Eagles come in. The Eagles were a 15th seed, next to the bottom of the draw, but they upset second seed Georgetown in their opener and knocked out San Diego State as well, becoming the first 15th seed to reach the round of 16.
In doing so, the Fort Myers college in only its second year of tournament eligibility produced a TV-highlight slam dunk, a one-handed pass from Brett Comer to Chase Fieler, who leapt high, grabbed the ball in his right hand and in one motion jammed it into the hoop.
“Just our style of play,” Comer said.
“We’re all about having fun and also playing really hard,” said senior guard Sherwood Brown. “And we like to get the crowd involved.”
The roster includes three international players — Swiss junior guard Christophe Varidel, German freshman guard Alexander Blessig and Croatian sophomore forward Filip Cvjeticanin.
LaSalle’s Explorers, a 13th-seed, will face ninth-seed Wichita State, aptly named the Shockers, in a game between two other NCAA surprise packets as other games will be played this weekend in Indianapolis, Washington and Los Angeles.
But having Florida Gulf Coast hanging around this late would be like having an FA Cup in England where League Two sides like AFC Wimbledon or Accrington Stanley went deep into the last matches against the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea or Tottenham.
“Every year there are upsets, as people like to put it, and I don’t know why anybody’s surprised anymore,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said.
“I think people don’t get a chance to see Florida Gulf Coast. I knew they were really good, but they didn’t get a lot of attention or recognition.”
They are getting it now. They will face Florida at Cowboys Stadium, the mammoth 100,000-seat venue that has hosted a Super Bowl and has a video board larger than the actual basketball court.
No matter how they fare from here, the Eagles have in some ways already won simply by winning two historic games and capturing national attention for a school with its own lakeside beach in sunny southwest Florida.
“Dunk City is coming,” Eagles sophomore guard Bernard Thompson said. “So everybody be ready.”
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