It’s got all the makings of a fairy tale; a big stage, in-state competitors and enough mainstream media attention to make Cinderella blush. As the nation’s eyes fall upon Arlington Friday night, it will undoubtedly be the lovable 15-seed FGCU Eagles against the big bad Gators from Gainesville.
On paper it’s a no brainer; Florida is a clear favorite. According to the Pomeroy rankings, Florida has a 95% chance of dancing onto Sunday. The Gators have a massive size advantage and a clear experience advantage over the new kids on the block from Florida Gulf Coast.
As Patric Young put it so simply on Thursday, ‘“I wouldn’t question their athleticism, I would question their size comparing to our size. Their guys can jump just as well as we can jump but they’re not as physically built or have the same amount of strength as us.” Since 2003, 21 double-digit seeded teams have advanced to the Sweet Sixteen; only four have walked out victorious. Although despite what it looks like to the untrained eye, we all know the NCAA tournament is an unpredictable beast.
“Dunk City” has no doubt arrived in Arlington and they will bring their show to a packed Cowboys stadium crowd on Friday night in Texas. Florida Gulf Coast has embraced the under dog role heading into Friday and taken on the role of America’s sweetheart. “They are obviously the higher seed,” Florida Gulf Coast star point guard Brent Comer said. “They’re the well-known school, the
well-known players and team. I feel like, you know, honestly deep down they might not be taking us as seriously, just like other teams, because we weren’t the high recruited guys.”
Despite what Florida Gulf Coast believe, the Gators appear to be preparing for the Eagles the same as they would any other opponent. “I respect what they have done,” Kenny Boynton said Wednesday. “They’ve gotten two good NCAA wins. Tomorrow is just two teams going out there playing. So we’re going to go out and play our hardest, and I’m sure they’ll come at us at their hardest, too.”
With that, fans are surely in for an entreating matchup Friday night. Florida Gulf Coast is lead by passing guru point guard Brent Corner and Atlantic Sun player of the year, Sherwood Brown. The Eagles fly up and down the court and will try to push a fast pace transition game in hopes of quick points and easy turnovers. Atlantic Sun defensive player of the year Bernard Thompson is a steal machine and has accumulated 102 takeaways on the year. The court commander Corner, combined with the scoring machine of Sherwood Brown and tenacious defense of Bernard Thompson has been the downfall of both Georgetown and San Diego State so far this NCAA Tournament.
It will be important for the Gators to not play into FGCU’s hands on Friday night. Florida should have no problem playing a fast pace transition game if the night plays out that way, but they will have to earn it by playing the lock down defense that has proven to be their bread and butter all year long. If Wilbekin can shut down Corner and keep the Eagles out of the paint, the Gators may find themselves feeling elite when the clock strike zero.
As Wilbekin reinforced Wednesday, “They do a good job when Comer gets into the lane of cutting and moving without the ball, we just have to make sure we don’t lose sight of our man and get caught ball watching and let our man get behind us.” If the game slows down, the Gators would be smart to take advantage of their physical advantage in the post. Patric Young appeared irritated at the Gators little recognition so far this post season. Young see’s the physical prowess of the Gators as a big advantage for Florida and see’s the game coming down ultimately to one thing; effort. “We should be able to take advantage of physical plays, rebounding and things like that but it all comes down to effort in the end.”
If the Gators take care of the ball and play the sound defense they are capable of, it will be hard for FGCU to feed off the energy of their typically high-flying free flowing offense. “We just have to take care of the ball,” senior guard Kenny Boynton pointed out. “They are fueled by turnovers. They get out in the passing lanes and if we turn the ball over that just gives energy to their team.”
I expect to see a battle Friday night, but ultimately it is up to the Gators to show up and take care of business against the upstart Eagles. A stat to keep an eye on is how efficient the Gators offense can be; FGCU is 25-0 when holding opponents to under 76 points but only 1-10 when their opponent surpass that mark. The stage is set, the lights will be bright and the only question is what Gators team will show up on the court Friday night? Mike Rosario put it simply, “I would say the last two years we were one game away from going to the Final Four. You just think about all those mornings you wake up throughout the season and preseason and especially summer workouts to prepare yourself for this moment right here.”