ARLINGTON, Texas -- We’re mere hours from the biggest basketball game involving two teams from the state of Florida in ... well ... ever.
Obviously, the only way this game could be any sexier would be if Florida State or Miami were lining up tonight in the NCAA South Region against the tournament-tested Florida Gators (28-7), but then we wouldn’t have the remarkable story of Florida Gulf Coast (26-10) and its improbable/historical run from a No. 15 seed to their place at destiny’s doorstep.
And make no mistake, the Eagles are a great story.
But when the ball goes up tonight -- tipoff is set for 9:57 ET, but expect things to start late -- neither UF’s rich and recent NCAA success or FGCU’s fairy-tale ride will mean a thing. It’ll be basketball savvy, athleticism and toughness that decides this game.
So let’s talk about those things, for a change.
Both teams start three guards, with the matchup at the point taking front and center. Eagles sophomore Brent Comer is the guy most responsible for FGCU’s “Dunk City” moniker -- and not because he’s playing above the rim. He’s the one tossing those lobs or finding the cutters and open men to get easy, momentum-charged baskets the likes of which UF has to deny. Comer is averaging 12 assists per game in the tournament. Gators point guard Scottie Wilbekin will get the assignment of staying with Comer, fighting through a multitude of screens and making his counterpart work to find open men. The Eagles’ other two guards, Sherwood Brown and Bernard Thompson, have glossy resumes. Brown was the Atlantic Sun Conference Player of the Year. Thompson was its Defensive Player of the Year. Together, they’re averaged nearly 30 points per game in the regular season, but have upped those numbers to 40-plus in the tournament. Both are capable 3-point shooters, so the Gators needed to close out the distance line, but Brown and Thompson also can take the ball to the basket and finish, which means UF’s Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario are on the spot defensively. At Florida’s end, Wilbekin needs to get the Gators playing -- here comes that phrase again -- “the right way” from the outset; like he did in the last outing against Minnesota when it was Rosario who went nuclear in the first half en route to a UF career-high 26 oints. Except for five spectacular minutes against Alabama in the SEC Tournament, Boynton has been stone-cold of late (now 39.3 percent for the season, 32.6 from the arc) and Coach Billy Donovan showed last weekend (with Rosario vs. Minnesota and Boynton vs. Northwestern State) he’s now willing to sit either one down when they’re struggling. Wilbekin’s job is to get his teammates open shots, but Rosario and Boynton need to make extra passes for the UF offense (72 points per game, 48.2 percent from the floor for the season) to be at its best.
The Eagles don’t have guys the size of Gators center Patric Young (6-9, 260) or forward Erik Murphy (6-10, 240). They just don’t. So UF needs to do what No. 2-seed Georgetown either didn’t or couldn’t do and work the ball into the post. Down low, Young and Murphy will find physical mismatches against forwards Chase Fieler (6-8, 210) and Erik McKnight (6-9, 210). They are very rangy and athletic, but both Young and Murphy should be able to body them and get position -- and rebounds. And when UF gets the ball down there, those guys need to convert. Period. When the Eagles are on offense, Fieler scores 12 a game and McKnight less than 7, but a good chunk of their points come in transition or on the receiving end of Comer’s drives and dishes. Young and Murphy -- with guard help -- need to impede the Eagles from knifing and crashing down the lane (their calling card). Note: 22 percent of FGCU’s points in the NCAA Tournament have come on dunks. While Wilbekin gets a ton of notoriety for his skills as a stopper on the perimeter (and rightfully so), Young is the absolute key to the Florida defense. When he is energized, communicating and (this is key) chasing rebounds, that's when UF is that ridiculously efficient defense force and can beat anybody. When he’s not (or in foul trouble), the Gators have no chance to be great on that end.
The Eagles go nine deep, with their most productive reserve guard Christophe Varidel, who will come off the bench with an itchy 3-point finger. Varidel averaged 6 points per game and well more than half of his field goals (39 of 65) were treys. Forward Eddie Murray is 6-8, 205 and will bang around low for some stickbacks and boards. Forward Filip Cvjeticanin (6-9, 212) and guard Dejuan Graf will give the starters about 15 minutes of rest. For the Gators, forward Will Yeguete is coming off his best all-around performance since returning from knee surgery eight games ago. He only had seven points and five rebounds, but was vintage Yeguete with his defense, in the press and with hustle/tipped-ball plays. Forward Casey Prather’s athleticism will be huge for matchup purposes against the high-flying Eagles and allow him to guard four positions, if necessary. Three-point sharpshooting Michael Frazier has missed all five of his shots in NCAA play, so this would be a nice night to get out of his funk.
Donovan is a staggering 30-10 all-time in NCAA plays. That .750 winning percentage ranks second in the nation among active coaches with at least 10 tournament games, behind only Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (.771) and Southern Methodist’s Larry Brown (.760). Donovan and his staff have had parts of the last six days to prep for this game and Donovan has a pretty good track record in regional semifinals, winning five straight Sweet 16 games dating to the 2000 season. Interesting note: Donovan has been coaching at Florida since 1996, longer than Florida Gulf Coast University (founded in 1998) has been existence. Eagles coach Andy Enfield was groomed as an assistant to Mike Dunleavy with the Milwaukee Bucks (1994-96), alongside Rick Pitino with the Boston Celtics (1998-2000) and for six seasons under Leonard Hamilton at Florida State (2006-11). During his time with the Seminoles, Enfield enjoyed three wins over the Gators, so he knows Donovan’s tendencies and how to attack them. He recruited a number of the players on UF’s roster while at FSU, so he’ll have that for his scouting report, too. Enfield also beat Big East co-champion Georgetown and has done something no coach in NCAA history can claim. He’s obviously does some work at halftime, too. The Eagles outscored Georgetown 22-2 to start the second half and San Diego State 17-0 to seize control of those games.
Make what you want of this stuff. The Eagles have the beloved underdog chip on their shoulder. They’ll also have most of the estimated crowd of nearly 40,000 on their side. It is the definition of David and Goliath, with the fact we’re talking two Sunshine State teams taking that storyline to another level. The Gators, on the other hand, can play the ol’ Us-Against-the-World card, if that’s the direction they want to go. America’s love affair with the Eagles has played on TV screens and front pages across the country, which includes Texas, where the Gators have been holed up the past five days soaking in highlights from FGCU pep rallies and sound bytes. Again, the moment the ball is tossed, all the distractions are gone. It will be about who’s better on this one night.
And there’s an awful lot at stake.