Florida Gulf Coast University’s basketball team has put an extra dose of mayhem into March Madness.
While it seemed the new kids on the block were unknowns to many in the basketball world, Belmont coach Rick Byrd knows all about them.
The Bruins beat Florida Gulf Coast a year ago - 95-53 and 86-63 - in regular season Atlantic Sun games. They later prevailed 83-69 in the conference championship game by erasing a 13-point deficit in the first half and outscoring the Eagles 44-27 in the second half.
So it came as a surprise to Byrd when Florida Gulf Coast upset No. 2 Georgetown and No. 7 San Diego State to punch its ticket to the Sweet 16.
“I think it surprised me, especially from my experience in trying to beat teams like that,” Byrd said this week. “We beat (FGC) three times last year when they had basically the same crew, but they are a year older and more confident.”
While Byrd’s teams have ample freedom in shooting 3-pointers, he sees Florida Gulf Coast coach Andy Endfield giving the Eagles even more room to fly around the court.
“It’s pretty obvious to everyone who watches them that their main strength is their freedom,” Byrd said. “It is kind of remarkable to see that they can play that way in that setting.”
He points to sophomore point guard Brett Comer as the Eagle future opponents will have to contain.
“You have to keep him controlled. I bet he initiated 75 percent of their offense,” Byrd said. “You can’t let him create shots for others. You have to make him make the shots.”
While Georgetown probably took Florida Gulf Coast too lightly, San Diego State had no excuse. Both teams lost to the Fort Myers-based team by 10 points.
The school initiated its first classes in 1997 and now has a 10,000-plus enrollment. This is only their second year of eligibility for post-season play. Their players come from all over. They have a Croatian, a player from Switzerland. Five are from Florida, including Comer (Winter Park H.S.) and senior Sherwood Brown (Orlando), a player with a blueblood name and a playground game.
They run the court at breakneck speed, throw lob passes that a teammate will snatch and dunk it. While their method may be seen as undisciplined, who can argue the results to this point?
“They will have a 10-point lead late in the game and they will come down and jack up the first 3 they can,” Byrd said. “They’re going in now.”
The next test is Florida, a team everyone knows about. Byrd thinks Gators coach Billy Donovan will quickly recognize the value Comer brings to Florida Gulf Coast.
“I don’t think they get the freedom if (Florida) controls Comer. He was the first order of business for us,” Byrd said.
Playing Florida may fuel Florida Gulf Coast’s players even more. It is a state school with a successful program that has won two Final Fours under Donovan. I would imagine at least some of the homegrown Eagles would have jumped at a chance to play for Florida out of high school.
It could provide them even more incentive to show Donovan he should have recruited them.
But as we have seen thus far, Florida Gulf Coast’s players don’t seem to lack for confidence or swagger.
They are the classic Final Four underdog story - Cinderella in sneakers.
Sports Columnist Joe Biddle is a four-time sports writer of the year in Tennessee and a 2013 inductee to the Tennessee Sports Writers Association Hall of Fame. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.