Imagine it, an NCAA Sweet 16 teamthat isn’t loaded with one-and-done NBA prospects. Think of it, a talented coach who makes six figures instead of seven. Revel in it, a team that doesn’t treat college as if it’s enforced loitering on the way to something bigger and richer.
If Florida Gulf Coast achieves nothing else in the NCAA tournament, at least it’s put some undergraduate irreverence back in the game. The Eagles are playing like, you know, kids.
Brett Comer throws the ball around as if it’s a yo-yo on a string and he can jerk it back at will. The flying boys of Dunk City flap their elbows, throw kisses and do achingly hilarious muscle-bird dances. They have taken on the role of Cinderella in the NCAA tournament and, get this, played it for laughs.
“We don’t take ourselves too seriously,” Coach Andy Enfield said last week. “We have a lot of guys on the team that are characters. Knowing who we are, we’re FGCU. Hopefully by now people are learning those initials.”
The palm-studded grounds are so new and untraditional that the buildings look more like Bahamian airport terminals than lecture halls, and who knows what kind of studying goes on there. But what’s not to like about a place where you can wear a swimsuit to class, and see a lifeguard chair out of the dorm window? And now this alley-ooping bunch has put the campus on the national map. The evocatively named combination of Brett Comer to Chase Fieler, with those one-handed flip passes ending in flying aerial slams, is prettier to watch than a bride tossing bouquets.
The last we saw of these unheroic heroes, they were dispatching Georgetown and San Diego State to become the first No. 15 seed to advance to the Sweet 16, while giving us all an object lesson in the corrosive stupidity of the one-and-done rule that allows players to spend just one season in college before decamping for the NBA draft.
You wonder if Ben Howland and Tubby Smith, who followed the traditional routes to getting fired at UCLA and Minnesota this week by doing less with more blue-chippers, are watching Enfield’s success with his un-recruited cast-offs. Anyone who doubts that Enfield is among the most inspired teachers in the game need only look at his roster and consider that Sherwood Brown, the team’s leading scorer, was a walk-on.
When Enfield took the job in 2011, he signed four freshmen and got a transfer from Iowa State in forward Eric McKnight. Already in-house were Brown, Fieler and Eddie Murray, none of whom was nationally recruited. What did Enfield do? Did he go in search of high-maintenance, short-stay recruits? No. He did what he does best. He taught.
“We knew that we had to increase our talent level, but also develop what we had in the program and the freshmen we were bringing in,” he said last week. “So what you’re seeing now is a product of two years of player development and learning how to run a system.”
The first time Enfield worked out Fieler, he says, the kid couldn’t go 20 minutes with running to a trash can to vomit. Two years later, he’s a national sensation for his flying leaps to the basket and was named second-team all-Atlantic Sun. A year ago, Comer led the nation in turnovers by a freshman point guard. Last weekend, he had 24 assists in two NCAA tournament games. Sophomore guard Bernard Thompson has 102 steals this season, the most in the nation. That’s what a couple of years in the hands of a good basketball teacher can do.
“This is just a culmination of their efforts and our focus on what we thought needed to be done to get to this point,” Enfield said. “So this is a product of our players spending a lot of time with our coaching staff and by themselves, of improving their ballhandling, their shooting, their decision making, the passing, their floaters, their Eurosteps, their finishes in the lane with both hands.”
FGCU’s mad dashes up the court look unstructured; those fast breaks and alley-oops tend to show off the improvisation and hide the work behind them. But make no mistake, they are a product of Enfield’s teaching — a team doesn’t open up such huge spaces on the floor by accident. It’s a product of design and repetition. The tempo at which they play is coupled with exquisite execution, and chemistry.
“My style is not a I don’t like to slow the ball down,” Enfield said. “I like to let our guys play. I think it’s extremely difficult to guard an offense when players have freedom and they can play within a system.”
Couple good teaching with pupils who are genuinely enthusiastic — as opposed to bored, jaundiced mercenaries — and what you get is Dunk City. And its effect is electrifying, the most fun we’ve had in the tournament in years. The Eagles’ offensive philosophy, according to Comer, is “attack, attack, attack,” and there is something about their combination of pace, execution and reckless fun — the way their reserves howl and hold one another back when Fieler throws down a tomahawk — that opponents find unnerving.
“They start talking to one another,” Thompson said, “you can see they’re a little shaken up by how we come and put the pressure on them. We just come out and just try to make them crack.”
Maybe what shakes up their opponents is the sudden realization that they’re playing a team for whom the stakes are so low — that has nothing to lose except the final score.
One of these days the shine will come off. It’s almost inevitable. Eventually they will lose — maybe to Florida in the South Region semifinals on Friday night. Somebody will get spoiled, or the big head, or flunk out, or go on the take. Enfield and the boys from Dunk City will struggle to live up to their brazenness. But the good news is, not yet. For the moment, it’s still all in fun.
For more by Sally Jenkins, go to www.washingtonpost.com/jenkins.
Feinstein: Boeheim says he isn’t going anywhere
Photos: Scenes from the tournament