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Thursday March 28, 2013Gators Enjoying Life Under the Radar, Ready for Sweet 16 Showdown with FGCU

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Florida Gulf Coast news conference was packed Thursday. 

 

The media converging on the NCAA South Region could not wait to sink its teeth into the story of the tiny school from Fort Myers with a plot thick enough, rich enough and big enough to fill gargantuan Cowboys Stadium to the rafters. 

 

“The way we look at it, we made history,” FGCU point guard Brett Comer said of helping his team become the first No. 15 in NCAA Tournament history to advance to the Sweet 16. “We feel like we shocked the world.” 

 

Few would argue, including the third-seeded Florida Gators (28-7), who face the tournament-darling Eagles (26-10) Friday night with an Elite Eight berth on the line. The handful of questions lobbed at UF’s players mostly focused on the upcoming opponent. 

 

They also came from the 11 reporters who cared to stick around for the Florida question-and-answer session.

 

Most everyone else was in the FGCU locker room. 

 

“We commend them for the success they’ve had,” UF senior guard Mike Rosario said. “They’re another good team we have to prepare for.” 

 

It’s a team, though, that just happens to have an entire country in its corner (and also will have Kansas and Michigan, the other two teams alive the region, in there with them).

 

“The media always finds somebody to get behind, but we can’t worry about that,” junior point guard Scottie Wilbekin said. “We have a game to play.” 

 

Oh yes, the game. 

 

So much has been made about Florida Gulf Coast’s remarkable run through second-seeded Georgetown, then seventh-seeded San Diego State -- and the historic ramifications with it -- that few have focused on the basketball that will be played in front of an estimated 40,000-plus inside the house known as "Jerry World." 

 

It figures to be high-flying, full-court and fast-paced stuff. 

 

Eagles coach Andy Enfield, already crowned a magician on the sidelines, had to become a juggler the past few days also, given the flood of local, state and national media that ascended on the campus of 12,700 to get a bite of the FGCU apple. 

 

“Things have certainly changed in a week,” Enfield said. “It’s been overwhelming, but we’ve been trying to do everything we can as a team to handle the requests.” 

 

That’s what pep rallies, campus appearances and endless sound bytes on ESPN -- coverage rivaled only by the Miami Heat’s winning streak -- and cover stories in USA Today, New York TimesWashington Post, et alcan do for a program. 

 

As coach, Enfield owed it to his university and team to embrace the exposure, but he also had a more pressing responsibility to his players. Amid the hoopla, the Eagles had to practice and prepare for the state’s flagship basketball program loaded with NCAA experience and back in the Sweet 16 for a third straight year. 

 

“It’s all business now,” Enfield said. 

 

That’s been the case for the Gators since Sunday when they defeated Minnesota at Austin. Instead of returning to Gainesville on the team charter with support staff, band and cheerleaders, UF coach Billy Donovan kept his squad in Texas, bused to Dallas on Monday and spent the last four days sequestered at a downtown hotel, practicing at Southern Methodist University and meeting with his players. 

 

Not one pep rally. 

 

“We kind of go into every single game with the same mentality,” Donovan said. “There’s a level of preparation that’s got to go into it.” 

 

The UF staff was not unaware of Florida Gulf Coast. 

 

Last summer, in fact, Enfield called Donovan and offered the Eagles to be one of the Gators’ sanctioned preseason scrimmages. Donovan, though, wanted to scrimmage Rollins and its Princeton offense in preparation for a season-opening game against Georgetown. In their conversation, Enfield promised Donovan he could give the Gators a game. All they could handle, in fact. 

 

A couple months later, the Eagles beat Miami. 

 

“So the fact they’re here is not a surprise to us,” Donovan said. 

 

Neither is the fact Florida Gulf Coast is the team everyone has focused on this week. Not one player in the UF locker room begrudged the Eagles their time in the limelight. What they did to get here is a phenomenal accomplishment and Donovan has drilled at his players that FGCU is more than capable of ending Florida’s season. 

 

“We respect what they’ve done,” senior guard Kenny Boynton said. 

 

But it’s also the way the Eagles -- aka “Dunk City” -- have done it, with their highlight-reel slams and alley-oops. They've not only gone YouTube viral, but spawned a few rap videos, one with more than a half-million Internet hits in just four days. 

 

Who wouldn't love a team that was virtually unknown a week ago yet has scored 22 percent of its NCAA Tournament points on dunks? 

 

Florida will need to bring the sort of defensive effort that became a Gators calling card this season, especially when it comes to thwarting the Eagles in the transition game. The penalty for failing to do so, both Georgetown and San Diego State learned, was is seeing athletic guards Bernard Thompson and Sherwood Brown or rangy, flying forward Chase Fieler doing pull-ups on the rim. 

 

"My dad always told me a dunk is only worth two points,” UF senior forward Erik Murphy said. “Those plays energize them, though, so we want to limit them.” 

 

That means locking up Comer, the confident point guard and wily facilitator setting up most of those slams that send teammates into heel-clicking, wing-flapping and muscle-flexing celebrations. Florida's defense needs to button up and avoid letting Comer penetrate, create and kick.

 

During Thursday’s news conference, an ESPN reporter read a Comer quote from earlier in the week to the point guard who won a state championship alongside Austin Rivers at Winter Park High. 

 

“As much as Florida wants to say maybe they’re taking us serious, deep down there’s got to be a gut feeling maybe they’re not. They’re Florida. We’re Florida Gulf Coast.”

 

Comer was asked what he meant by that statement. 

 

“They’re a well-known school, with well-known players and team,” he said. “Honestly, deep down they might not be taking us as seriously, just like other teams because we weren’t the high-recruited guys.” 

 

Maybe not, but they’re popularity is through even this immense Texas roof and it’s managed to overshadow one of the marquee programs in the nation and a coach who's won 30 of his 40 NCAA games. 

 

“We’ve gone up against Duke, we’ve gone up against Miami and other big schools, so I don’t think there’s anything that scares us,” FGCU backup forward Eddie Murray said. “This is a team that knows how to buckle down and get ready to play a game.” 

 

The one in the other locker room -- the mostly empty one -- does too.  

 

 

GATORS GAME BOX -- NCAA SOUTH REGION SEMIFINAL 

3rd-seeded Florida vs. 15th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast   

Tip-off: Friday, 9:57 p.m. (Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Texas)  

Records: Florida 28-7; Florida Gulf Coast (26-10)  

TV: TNT (Marv Albert, Steve Kerr and Craig Sager) 

Radio: Gator IMG Sports Network (w/Mick Hubert and Mark Wise) -- Click here for affiliates) / Sirius 134/XM 199

Need to know: The Gators are in the Sweet 16 for the third straight year, a first in program history, and the reward is a date with upstart Florida Gulf Coast, the first 15-seed ever to win two games in the NCAA Tournament and underdog darling of a bracket-obsessed nation. ... The game marks just the second meeting between Florida and FGCU, which is in just its second season of NCAA Division I. The Gators defeated the Eagles 94-60 on Dec. 8, 2010. ... The Eagles, who beat Miami during the regular season, qualified for the NCAA field by winning the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament, defeating Mercer in its home gym in the final. FGCU then shocked second-seeded Georgetown and seventh-seeded San Diego State to reach the Round of 16. ... The Gators got here by dispatching of Northwestern State and Minnesota, both by double-digits, in the South regional at Austin last weekend. ... UF is one of four teams to reach the Sweet 16 the last three years (joining Duke, Marquette and Ohio State). ... The Gators have won five straight regional semifinal games (2000, 2006, ’07, ’11 and ’12). ... UF is led by senior forward Erik Murphy (12.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg), who is hitting 46.2 percent from 3-point range, but the biggest reason the Gators are here is senior guard Mike Rosario (12.5 ppg), who erupted for 25 points and went 6-for-9 from 3-point range against the Gophers. ... Florida has been one of the nation’s top defensive teams all season, allowing opponents to make just 37.8 percent from the floor and and 30.2 from the 3-point line, thanks to stellar perimeter guarding from junior guard Scottie Wilbekin (9.2 ppg, 5 apg) and the interior bulk of 6-9, 260-pound junior center Patric Young (10.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg). ... UF will look to seize on its considerable size advantage with Young and Murphy inside on offense. ... The Eagles have averaged 80 points in their two NCAA wins and earned their “Dunk City” nickname by scoring 22 percent of their points on slams. ... The heart of the squad is point guard Brett Comer (12 ppg), who won the Florida Class 7A state championship alongside Austin Rivers at Winter Park High two years ago. During the regular season, Comer averaged 5.4 assists per game, but in tournament play is at 12 per game, including 14 against SDSU. ... Senior guard Sherwood Brown (15.6 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 38 percent from 3) was the Atlantic Sun Player of the Year, while sophomore guard Bernard Thompson (14.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 2.8 spg) was the league’s Defensive Player of the Year. Thompson is averaging 23 points, while shooting 44 percent from the floor and 46 from distance in the tournament. Brown’s average is up to 20.5 on 50 percent from the floor and 46 from the 3-point line in NCAA play. ... Junior forward Chase Fieler (12.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg) has 59 dunks on the season. ... FGCU had some ugly losses, notably defeats against Maine, Stetson and two versus David Lipscomb. Clearly, the Eagles get up for the big ones. While they lost by 21 at Duke early in the season, Thompson went into Cameron Indoor Stadium and hung 26 on the Blue Devils. The spotlight does not intimidate them. Quite the opposite.

 

 

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