Since George Mason advanced to the Final Four in 2006 as a No. 11 seed, the common perception has been that a Cinderella team of their magnitude would never emerge again. That is until this year, as the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles are the first No. 15 seed to ever advance to the Sweet Sixteen and, like George Mason, they’re quickly turning doubters into fans.
When George Mason made it into the NCAA Tournament in 2006 as an at-large bid from the Colonial Athletic Association, many people (most notably Billy Packer) ridiculed the selection, saying that the Patriots were untested and undeserving. George Mason quickly expelled these doubters with wins over No. 6 seed Michigan State and defending champion North Carolina.
Heading into the Sweet Sixteen, George Mason was in a similar position to where FGCU is now: simply viewed as a fun story that was not expected to make much noise once the second week began. As we now know, the George Mason doubters were wrong and the Patriots went on to beat Wichita State and tournament favorite UConn to advance to the Final Four.
Fans of Florida Gulf Coast, and Cinderella teams in general, hope that the Eagles will be able to continue their miraculous run and follow in the footsteps of George Mason. Florida Gulf Coast’s next test will be on Friday against the Florida Gators, who are ironically the team that eliminated George Mason in 2006.
The key to George Mason’s run during that 2006 Tournament was their ability to attack the rim and get to the line. The Patriots shot 26 free throws against Michigan State, 19 against North Carolina, 23 against Wichita State and 25 against UConn. They outshot their opponents from the line in all four of their wins and when they were finally defeated by the Florida Gators, they lost the battle at the free throw line. The Patriots never gave up during their run, even while facing double-digit deficits against North Carolina and UConn. This can be attributed to both the players on their squad and head coach Jim Larranaga, who is currently in the Sweet Sixteen again as head coach at the University of Miami.
Similarly to George Mason, Florida Gulf Coast relied heavily on the free throw line during their upset of No. 2 seed Georgetown. The Eagles shot 44 (!) free throws in that game to kick-start their tournament run. Execution at this level will be needed again to defeat Florida on Friday.
In addition to attacking and winning the free throw battle, the Eagles will need a big game from their senior star Sherwood Brown, continued above-average execution from the rest of their squad, and tight perimeter defense on Florida’s Erik Murphy if they want any chance of defeating the more talented Gators. Florida Gulf Coast does have a major advantage, though, in that they have nothing to lose. If they win, yippee. The magic ride continues. If they lose, whatever. It was fun while it lasted. But if Florida loses, they’ll have to live with being eliminated from the tournament by the equivalent of their little, in-state brother. That will be tough to live down.
Like George Mason, Florida Gulf Coast will also need to rely on things outside of basketball fundamentals to advance past a superior opponent: incredible heart, energy and inspired coaching will be needed. So far, the Eagles have had plenty of all three in their first two games but they’ll need even more on Friday.
However, no matter what the outcome is for Florida Gulf Coast, one thing is for sure: this run has provided respect, recognition, and notoriety for a university that is only 17 years old. And that type of benefit is something that only March Madness could provide.
Will FGC win again?
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