There have been several entertaining story lines in the men’s NCAA basketball tournament thus far: Harvard achieving its first win ever over three-seed University of New Mexico; nine-seed Wichita State defeating the West Region’s top team, Gonzaga, and Ohio State’s Aaron Craft hitting a three-point buzzer-beater on Sunday to defeat the scrappy Iowa State Cyclones.
But the story of the week has to be the South region’s fifteen-seed Florida Gulf Coast University Eagles, who on Friday and Sunday defeated, respectively, No. 2-seed Georgetown and No. 7-seed San Diego State. It is another first for the tournament: a 15-seed has never advanced to the “Sweet Sixteen.” In fact, in the entire history of the men’s NCAA tournament, only seven 15-seeds had even won a single game.
It is not unusual for teams – the great and not-so-great – to endure a “let down” after a physically and emotionally draining win. But in the case of the Fort Myers, Fla.-based Eagles, they seemed to respond in the opposite manner. They dropped 81 points on the Aztecs Sunday night, whose wheels effectively fell off after a 17-0 run against them in the middle of a second half that was marked by numerous uncharacteristic turnovers.
After the game, Florida Gulf Coast’s coach Andy Enfield was asked about their next opponent, the perennially powerful, No. 3 seed University of Florida. He said that he had called the Gators before the beginning of the season, trying to get a scrimmage on the schedule, but that it was not to be. He won’t need Florida’s coach Billy Donovan to take his call this time.
Witnessing this team on the sidelines or in the locker room, it is obvious these guys are having great fun, and they appear to very close knit. This has enabled them to play with an unusual brand of abandon, and it was more than evident in the second half last night.
With point guard Brett Comer doing his best Jason Kidd imitation from the top of the key and center Chase Fieler’s dunks seemingly channeling Blake Griffin (minus the car), the Eagles were the more athletic team, effortlessly siphoning off the enthusiasm of the Aztecs. San Diego’s coach Steve Fisher (himself owner of a Fort Myers residence) was complimentary – even if he mistakenly referred to Florida Gulf Coast as Florida State University. Understandable – as most of America is just getting to know this remarkable team, which has defeated its first two opponents by a combined 20 points.
The Eagles' captain and motivational leader is senior Sherwood Brown, who routinely speaks to the team during half-time intermissions. But following Sunday night's victory, Brown himself got a boost from San Diego State star Jamaal Franklin, who exhibited the true essence of sportsmanship when he sought out Brown, embraced him and told the Eagles' forward that they played a great game and to keep the dream going. In fact, Franklin stayed on the court, long after his teammates had left, to witness the excitement.
LaSalle takes out Mississippi
In the late 17th century, Robert de la Salle, the namesake of the Philadelphia University that bears his name, claimed the entire Mississippi River Valley for France. On Sunday night, No. 13-seed LaSalle University’s men’s basketball team did nearly the equivalent by defeating 12th-seeded Mississippi, 76-74 to head to the West region’s Sweet Sixteen.
The Explorers, who refuse to refer to themselves as a "fluke" or "Cinderella” got great production from their guards Ramon Galloway (24 points, including six of 10 three-point shots), Tyreek Duren (19 points) and Tyrone Garland – who hit for an incredible 17 points of the bench, including the game-winning layup. Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson led the Rebels with 21 points, but as a team shot under 50 percent from the free- throw line, and the zone defense they’d used with great effectiveness during the season surrendered a 62 percent field goal percentage to LaSalle.
Harvard, Gonzaga, and Iowa State bow out
And in other action, Harvard’s Cinderella run came to an end with a 74-51 loss to Arizona on Saturday. Wichita State confounded the West Region’s No. 1 seed, Gonzaga, 76-70. The Shockers, led by quartet of players including forwards Cleanthony Early and Carl Hall and guards Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker, hit 50 percent from the floor to Gonzaga’s woeful 36 percent and scored a combined 53 points to oust the Bulldogs, who are the first No. 1 seed to go down.
And in Dayton, guard Aaron Craft put aside a serious case of the “yips” in the closing minutes at the free-throw line to lift the Ohio State Buckeyes to a last-second 78-75 win over Iowa State. Craft’s rainbow three from just right of the top of the key hit nothing but nylon with .5 seconds left on the clock and insured that the Buckeyes would remain the lone high-seed in the highly volatile West bracket. Overall, the West region, though the action has been exciting, has been equally maddening for professional and amateur bracketologists alike – remaining the best evidence imaginable of the increasing degree of parity in the men’s NCAA tournament.