Back on Nov. 9, Florida Gulf Coast University, a small school in Fort Myers, Fla., that has existed for just 22 years, opened its basketball season with a game against Virginia Commonwealth. The two programs couldn't have been more different. The VCU Rams were considered one of the 30 best teams in Division I and had made a Final Four run in the 2011 NCAA tournament. The FGC Eagles, meanwhile, were entering just their sixth season as a Division I program, period, and had yet to finish above .500 in any of them. The game went as expected: VCU crushed FGCU, 80-57, and the teams went their separate ways.
Who would've thought that five months and 35 games later, Florida Gulf Coast would be on a VCU-like run of its own, the darling of the 2013 NCAA tournament.
In its two bracket-busting games, the Eagles have blown up the conventional wisdom of what a high seed can do in the NCAA tournament. With a high-flying 81-71 win over No. 7 San Diego State, FGCU became the first 15-seed ever to advance to the Sweet 16. The start of that unprecedented run: A 78-68 upset over bona fide title contender and two-seed Georgetown.
The Eagles are such an improbable Cinderella that their story feels made up. Their coach, Andy Enfield, owns a multi-million dollar stake in a tech startup and married a Maxim model; the team's best player, Sherwood Brown, was a walk-on. And instead of scraping by with late threes or a grind-it-out game plan like past bracket-busters, FGCU made its way to the Sweet 16 on a platform of GIF-ready alley-oops, a dizzyingly fast tempo, and a style so loose it belongs on a New York City playground court.
The 2013 NCAA tournament will be the first ever to have two 13-or-higher seeds in the Sweet 16, one year after 13th-seeded Ohio advanced to those regional semifinals and two 15-seeds — Lehigh and Norfolk State — eliminated Duke and Missouri to get to the round of 32. Of course, high-seed upsets have always been a part of the tournament, and are in fact less surprising than they appear on first glance. But as this tournament has shown, the gap between the traditional powerhouses and the mid-majors (not to mention the pipsqueaks like Florida Gulf Coast) is closing more and more every year. Upsets like FGCU's aren't the exception anymore; they're practically the rule.
Of course, we shouldn't expect the Florida Gulf Coasts of the world to suddenly rise up and become our new college basketball overlords. But it's clear that the tournament is struggling to keep up with the newfound parity. It used to be that an easy first- or second-round matchup against a middling high seed was a stellar team's reward for a season well done. Now, it's a fight from the get-go. Matchups that looked tantalizingly easy on paper have become amazingly close on the court.
Take a look at your (presumably ruined) brackets to see how even the game has become. In the Sweet 16, the Eagles will be joined by 13th-seeded La Salle, which had to take part in a play-in game just to make the tournament, and then knocked out Kansas State. No. 12 Oregon will be there, too, as will ninth-seeded Wichita State, which took out No. 1 Gonzaga. That same Gonzaga team barely survived an encounter with No. 16 Southern University, which would've been the first 16-over-1 upset in NCAA history. This tournament also featured 14-seed Harvard eliminating No. 3 New Mexico and 12-seed Ole Miss sending No. 5 Wisconsin home. Ninth-seeded Temple nearly pulled the upset on No. 1 Indiana on Sunday, and No. 10 Iowa State was half a second away from taking No. 2 Ohio State to overtime.
In most of those games, the patina of a numeric seed hid the very real danger lurking underneath. Nowhere is that more true than Florida Gulf Coast. The Eagles never made the national top 25 rankings — or even earned a vote — but their season was more impressive than you'd expect from a 15-seed. They shook off the opening loss to VCU and held eventual ACC champion Miami to 51 points in a double-digit win. The stats show a team that shot well from inside the arc and flew up and down the court, harassing teams and forcing them into turnovers. Shooting guard Bernard Thompson had the sixth highest steal percentage in the country; point guard Brett Comer had an assist on 43 percent of his teammates' baskets, the third best rate in Division I. According to Ken Pomeroy, lanky forward Chase Fieler is the 27th best shooter in the country in effective field goal percentage. The Eagles rolled through the Atlantic Sun tournament with three straight double-digit wins to earn the conference's automatic bid to the big dance. The rest has been history.
For the next four days, Florida Gulf Coast gets to celebrate its status as the team least likely to still be standing. Then comes a date Friday with the Florida Gators, a two-time NCAA champion, for the right to advance to the Elite Eight. For the Eagles, it would continue a magical run they never could have envisioned at season's start. But it's a path that's become a lot easier to imagine for future high seeds.