Three years ago, Florida Gulf Coast University’s men’s basketball team captured the nation’s attention with its up-tempo, high-flying aerial attack during a magical run to the Sweet 16 as a 15th seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Sports fans around the country went from “FGC-Who?” to hashtagging “Dunk City” on social media.
Now heading into their First Four game Tuesday against Fairleigh Dickinson (18-14) at UD Arena, the Eagles (20-13) are hoping to live up to that hype that still follows them — even as a much different type of team.
“Giving credit to those guys, they took advantage of their opportunities, but we’re an entirely different team,” said senior guard Julian DeBose, who transferred from Rice following the 2012-13 season. “Obviously, seeing the legacy that they’ve left, us all being competitors, we want to do as best we can and that’s all we can pretty much hope for.”
No doubt, FGCU has reaped the benefits of the 2013 team’s success. The national attention helped the university see a 29.9 percent increase in student applications and an 88.8 percent increase in out-of-state applicants in 2013-14. Similarly, recruiting became a little easier, evidenced by transfers like DeBose’s.
Although FGCU hasn’t been to the big dance since 2013, it has recorded four straight 20-win seasons and returns for its second trip in the program’s fifth eligible season after moving up from Division II.
“We talk about creating tradition,” said FGCU coach Joe Dooley, who took over in 2014 and brought a slower-tempo offense focused on getting the ball inside. “We don’t have tradition because we’re too young to have tradition. … We try to tell our guys, listen, they started something, we need to keep it going, and it’s on your shoulders to keep expectations and hopefully to keep this program going in the right direction.”
Dunk City Lite: Fairleigh Dickinson coach Greg Herenda would like to think his team from Teaneck, N.J., is a lot like Florida Gulf Coast’s 2013 Dunk City style — minus the dunking maybe.
The Knights bring a similarly athletic and potent offense to the floor. FDU led the Northeastern Conference with 77.9 points per game, and the scoring comes from a balanced attack.
“I hope we are (like FGCU in 2013) because they did some great, great things, but we are who we are,” Herenda said. “We’re from New Jersey. We’re a blue-collar team that likes to run, and we shoot 3s. We try to get to the basket. I’ve said before, we’re not the greatest rebounding team and we’re not the greatest defensive team all the time, but these guys find ways to win and to compete.”
No small task: Wichita State faces a challenge in meeting a Vanderbilt squad featuring two 7-footers, but the Shockers have the advantage of tournament experience.
While WSU is playing in its fifth straight NCAA Tournament, Vanderbilt is making its first trip since 2012 — when the current seniors were all finishing up high school. The Shockers have been to two Sweet 16s and a Final Four in 2013.
“I think it makes a huge difference,” Vandy coach Kevin Stallings said, “because the guys on their team that are non-freshmen have experienced this before, and, you know what they say about experience — you can’t teach it.”