March 28, 2013

Underdog Florida Gulf Coast exudes loose, confident attitude

“Dunk City” crew ready to extend historic run in Arlington.

Dunk City arrived at Cowboys Stadium with an exclamation point, not a whisper, for Thursday’s public practice.

Florida Gulf Coast, the No. 15 seed on its historic run to the Sweet 16, drew one of the largest crowds — and easily the loudest, at least during its layup/dunk drill — to its open practice session at the NCAA South Regional because of the Eagles’ appeal to non-partisan fans with busted brackets in an upset-filled tournament.

FGCU is the first No. 15 seed in NCAA Tournament history to reach the Sweet 16 and the upstart program faces in-state power Florida, a two-time national champion (2006, 2007), in Friday’s late game at Cowboys Stadium (9:07 p.m., TBS).

Although the high-flying Eagles were businesslike for the brunt of their 50-minute practice session, they turned the layup line at the end of practice into an impromptu dunkfest that energized fans and underscored the looseness of this team heading into the biggest game in program history.

When practice ended, players took turns photographing and videotaping one another on the court at Cowboys Stadium before sliding into position for a group chant in front of a rolling camera.

As they exited the court, guard Christophe Varidel scooped up fellow guard Bernard Thompson in his arms and carried him off the court. Laughing teammates, many of them wearing “Dunk City” T-shirts beneath their practice jerseys, followed them toward the dressing room.

Coach Andy Enfield said such playful antics are a daily occurrence at a school that embraces its role as arguably the longest long shot to reach the Sweet 16 since the tournament began seeding regional competitors.

“It’s the personality of our players and our team and our culture,” Enfield said of the Eagles’ loose approach. “Our team chemistry is at an all-time high. What you’re seeing is genuine.”

It’s also infectious, along with the Eagles’ up-tempo style of play that will make FGCU a huge crowd favorite in Friday’s David-and-Goliath matchup from the Sunshine State. TBS analyst Steve Kerr said he has become smitten by FGCU’s “activity and alertness on every possession, in every aspect of the game … They play with an urgency, but it’s well-coached and fundamental. With this team, it’s not just momentum. They’ve captured the imagination of fans around the country and it’s taken on a life of its own.”

Among the Eagles’ laundry list of endearing traits:

• Founded in 1991, the Fort Myers, Fla., university held its first classes in 1997 as a commuter school that offered an extensive collection of online courses.
• The basketball program, which plays in a 4,500-seat arena, is making its NCAA Tournament debut in only its second year of eligibility thanks to a victory over Mercer in the championship game of the Atlantic Sun conference tournament. FGCU (26-10) is still dancing despite being swept by Lipscomb (12-18) in two regular-season contests.
• Enfield, who became a millionaire through his work with a start-up technology company (TractManager), is married to a former lingerie and bikini model who has been featured in Elle, Vogue and Maxim. Enfield and his wife, Amanda Marcum Enfield, have three children.
• Enfield, a 2,000-point scorer in his playing days at Johns Hopkins, still owns the NCAA career record for free-throw shooting percentage (92.5 percent) and has tutored NBA players as a shot doctor.
• FGCU’s 760-acre campus, built by filling in swampland in southwest Florida, overlooks a lake with a sandy beach and palm trees. More than half of the property (400 acres) is dedicated as a nature preserve.
• One of the primary fields of study at FGCU is forensic science, with the school known for its crime scene investigators.
• The school’s notable alums include Chicago White Sox pitcher Chris Sale, former beauty queen turned monster truck driver Courtney Jolly, professional surfer Scottie Bordelon and Florida state representative Matt Caldwell.
• The combined attendance at FGCU’s 16 home games this season would not match the capacity for Friday’s configuration at Cowboys Stadium (42,614).

Roll it together and it’s been a dizzying tournament ride for players from a college where Enfield said the recruiting budget “is challenging … one of the lowest” among Division I schools. That has made the trek memorable to all involved. That includes the coach’s wife, whose modeling career has drawn so much attention the past two weeks that she’s become a little sheepish to talk about it.

“It’s nice. I do appreciate it,” Amanda Enfield said. “But it’s this team that’s the reason we’re here. I think they should have all the attention. … We never expected this, and it’s been so exciting and amazing to see these guys come this far. It’s just such a cool thing to watch this play out like it has.”

The Eagles enter Friday’s matchup as a dangerous underdog that has knocked off No. 2 Georgetown and No. 7 San Diego State by double-digit margins in the only NCAA Tournament games the school has ever played. The confidence level is high. That is why these Eagles believe they can thrive against third-seeded Florida, the state’s power program.

“Everybody talks about Florida. Nobody talks about Florida Gulf Coast,” point guard Brett Comer said. “Deep down, they might not be taking us as seriously … because we weren’t the high-recruited guys. But we thought as we came into the tournament that we would win games. We expected to be here.”

And the Eagles played to the crowd Thursday, throwing down monster jams during the latter stages of practice while fans cheered loudly. One bellowed: “Dunk City in the building!,” which drew smiles from FGCU players.

Comer said the Eagles plan to unleash their typical antics — flexes and kisses to the crowd from guard Sherwood Brown, as well as heel clicks after 3-point shots by Varidel — against the Gators. Forward Eddie Murray said he can feel the groundswell of support building.

“It’s cool being the Cinderella team,” Murray said. “It definitely feels different than when we were playing Georgetown and nobody was rooting for us. Now, we know that the nation is behind us. It’s an amazing experience, and I’ve always rooted for underdogs. It’s just a little different being one now.”

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