March 24, 2013

Florida earns matchup against Cinderella at JerryWorld

The Gators’ coach understands the challenge of facing Florida Gulf Coast in Arlington.

The Miami Heat owns a 26-game winning streak, seven short of the NBA’s all-time record. The Miami Hurricanes have collected trophies for winning ACC regular-season and tournament titles.

But the biggest basketball buzz this week in the state that is fast becoming the Hoops Capital of America involves neither of those teams. Instead, it will involve the David vs. Goliath matchup that will captivate the Sunshine State, as well as the rest of the country, when blueblood Florida meets upstart Florida Gulf Coast in Friday’s Sweet 16 matchup at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington.

Florida, the No. 3 seed in the South Region, punched its ticket to that historic showdown with Sunday’s 78-64 romp over Minnesota in the Erwin Center. Moments later, FGCU became the first No. 15 seed in the history of the NCAA Tournament to play its way into the Sweet 16 by knocking off San Diego State 81-71 in Philadelphia.

That sets up a compelling showdown at JerryWorld between Florida (28-7), a two-time national champion (2006, 2007) preparing to make its third consecutive Sweet 16 appearance, and Florida Gulf Coast (26-10), an NCAA newbie that accepted its first student in 1997 and qualified for this year’s tournament in only its second year of eligibility to be considered for the 68-team field.

Shortly after the two schools separated by 260 miles along I-75 had finalized their matchup, one notable Gator legend — former Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith — made it clear that the matchup has caught his attention. On his Twitter account, @EmmittSmith22, the NFL career rushing leader wrote: “Florida Gulf Coast is for real!!!!”

Yes, he used four exclamation points. And Florida coach Billy Donovan was very complimentary when he weighed in with his thoughts about facing the Eagles, who have become the poster boys for bracket-busting in a tournament overrun with upsets.

The Eagles’ list of NCAA Tournament triumphs includes victories over No. 2 Georgetown and No. 7 San Diego State. But the most eye-catching victory came in November, when FGCU sent shock waves through the state by knocking off Miami, the No. 2 seed in the East Region, by a 63-51 margin during the regular season.

Donovan said he has yet to scour videotapes of the Eagles but is well aware of their credentials and even talked with FGCU coach Andy Enfield about the possibility of playing an exhibition game but “it just didn’t work out.”

Now, it has worked out. In the Sweet 16. At Cowboys Stadium. On national television.

Clearly, this is not an ideal backdrop for one of Florida’s flagship programs to be sent packing by an in-state upstart that has not been in existence as long as any of its players have been alive. Donovan understands the stakes. And the challenge.

“Any team that advances to this point and time in the season, I always think, is really, really good. So this will be a great challenge for us,” Donovan said to a small group of reporters after Sunday’s game. “For us right now, to be in the state and knowing that they beat Miami and had a great year ... I think our guys have been smart enough and been around enough to realize that when you line up and play in college basketball now, you’d better be ready to play.”

Donovan stressed that FGCU is performing at a much higher standard than a typical No. 15 seed, adding that he has not been surprised by their string of upsets.

“If you follow college basketball, it happens all the time,” Donovan said. “People talk about (upsets) all the time and, obviously, here in March it gets made a much, much bigger issue.”

Although Florida guard Mike Rosario said Gators players “don’t know too much about those guys” from FGCU, Donovan said he’s well aware of Enfield, the Eagles’ young, energetic coach.

“Andy is a terrific coach. I’m looking forward to watching his team play,” said Donovan, who limits is videotape reviews during the season to “our team and who we’re playing next.”

Now, the next team on the schedule is one that could give his team quite a black eye in the PR department. Inside and outside of Florida.

The Gators put themselves in that position in workmanlike fashion, rolling to a 48-27 halftime lead and never letting Minnesota (21-13) cut it to less than seven in the second half. Rosario scored a game-high 25 points, hitting 6 of 9 from behind the 3-point arc, and Florida shot a blistering 56.8 percent from the field, including 65.2 percent in the first half.

But now comes the real test. And Miami coach Jim Larranaga offered Donovan an early idea of what to expect from FGCU.

“After the game, everybody was appalled that an ACC team would lose to Florida Gulf Coast,” Larranaga said, reflecting on his team’s November setback. “They’re a team that flies under the radar screen because they’re not on TV as much as other programs. But they have a lot of good players.”

And they’ll get a chance to prove it against Florida in JerryWorld.

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