In a tournament that tends to turn out stories made for Hollywood, you just cannot script March Madness. Not this year at least.
Florida Gulf Coast, a school that was founded just 12 years ago, became the first school to reach the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament as a No. 15 seed. They did so in their first NCAA Tournament, showing absolutely no signs of nervousness or jitters you would expect to see at some point from a young program entering the big stage for the first time. Instead Florida Gulf Coast has taken the basketball and sports world by storm with their high flying dunk sessions that turned out an upset win over Big East power Georgetown in round one and followed up with an encore at the Wells Fargo Center by soaring over San Diego State, one of the top programs from a Mountain West Conference that entered the tournament praised for the overall season of work – in the blink of an eye in the second half.
It was fitting to see the classic underdog coming out throwing punch after punch at heavy favorites in the city that idolizes Rocky Balboa, a fictional underdog turned feel good story and fan favorite. The fans that filled the Wells Fargo Center the past few days became Florida Gulf Coast fans by the minute, some even chanting “E-A-G-L-E-S EAGLES!” for their newly adopted team of choice. What Florida Gulf Coast is doing right now is something you would only imagine be in a Hollywood Script, and the script gets even better this week. Florida Gulf Coast is now set to play the Florida Gators, a program from the same state separated by fewer than 300 miles with a couple of national championship trophies sitting in the display case in Gainesville. As far as the state of Florida goes, this is a true David vs. Goliath match-up. If the Eagles can somehow pull some magic one more time against the top basketball program in the sunshine state, a match-up with storied programs Kansas or Michigan await with a trip to Atlanta on the line.
The Florida Gulf Coast story is fantastic. It deserves to be played up the way it is. The players deserve the chance to let loose and do a dirty bird strut from time to time. This weekend, they were the team everyone was talking about. Soak it up. Enjoy it Florida Gulf Coast. This is what every underdog program dreams of having a chance to enjoy.
To take nothing away from what Florida Gulf Coast is doing, La Salle’s journey may be just as captivating.
In the span of one week La Salle won three games, or more than the Explorers have enjoyed since the last time they reached the Sweet 16 in 1955 combined. To get there La Salle needed to win one of the four play-in games in the First Four in Dayton, Ohio against Boise State. After picking up the win La Salle had to travel to Kansas City for their first round match-up against No. 4 seed Kansas State. The Explorers stunned the Wildcats in front of a partisan crowd by taking a commanding lead in to halftime. The second half saw La Salle nearly lose control as Kansas State roared back from an 18-point deficit to take the lead but the Explorers kept their cool and pulled out a late victory. It is here where I have to praise the job done by La Salle head coach Dr. John Gianinni. Any number of double-digit seed underdogs would have caved after blowing a huge lead like that against a team form a power conference playing in front of a largely pro-Kansas State crowd. For La Salle to keep their cool and preserve for the victory under those circumstances, to me, was incredible and clearly outweighs the loss of an 18-point lead.
To get to the Sweet 16 La Salle won a back-and-forth type of game against SEC champion Ole Miss, with the enigmatic Rebel star Marshall Henderson getting blocked on a late shot and perhaps not having a foul called in his favor. The no-call foul came seconds after the refs rules an out of bounds ball against La Salle despite video review possibly showing it should have been La Salle’s basketball all along in a crucial point.
La Salle, with the game tied and able to hold on for the final shot if they wanted, danced to the Sweet 16 after Tyrone Garland drove to the basket with time winding down and let loose on the now iconic Southwest Philly Floater to give the Explorers the lead with just seconds left.
I feel I should mention that I have no real ties to any of the Philadelphia schools, so I tend to go against the grain when it comes to rooting interest among Big 5 (or City 6) programs. I root for them all, especially in the tournament. I would love nothing more than to see an all Philly Final Four someday, unrealistic as that is. So when Garland’s floater dropped for the lead I could not keep from pumping my fist and belting out a “Yes!” from my couch.
I have no idea how far Florida Gulf Coast and La Salle will go in this tournament. They may both get squashed this week in the Sweet 16. Maybe they win. Who knows. This is what makes March Madness so fun. When teams come out of virtually nowhere to create a buzz, it gives the tournament some life nobody saw coming.
Florida Gulf Coast is 2-0 in their first two tournament games in program history, about to go up against the Florida Gators. Is a Florida Gulf Coast vs. Miami national semifinal that far behind? Yeah, probably, but given what we have seen to this point we have every right to dream about the scenario this week.
La Salle was thought to be the Philadelphia school that would probably be sent home first. Villanova lost their first game against North Carolina. Temple gave Indiana all they could handle but just did not have enough offense to finish the job in round two. Now the La Salle Explorers carry the Philadelphia banner with them.
In a season of college basketball in which nobody appears to be a clear favorite, Florida Gulf Coast and La Salle have proven once again that March is a time when dreamers can become believers anywhere.