It is March 22, 2013. Kevin Harlan, Len Elmore, and Reggie Miller temporarily forget all professionalism and turn back into fans of the game of basketball as Brett Comer and Chase Fieler complete a thunderous and spectacular alley-oop that puts the No. 15 seed Florida Gulf Coast Eagles up by nine with less than two minutes remaining in a game against the No. 2 seed Georgetown Hoyas that wasn't as close as it seemed.
In that moment, the hearts of college basketball fans everywhere swelled, and suddenly a program that, earlier this year, was the punchline to an anti-Miami joke was being brought up not only as fun to watch, but legitimately dangerous and worthy of national attention. But it didn't seem like that's what the FGCU players were thinking about. They were in the moment, and doing only two things: doing what they knew was possible (even if no one else did), and having fun doing it.
A school that has only been in Division I basketball for six years, and therefore only been eligible for post-season play for two years, Florida Gulf Coast University is in the Atlantic Sun Conference, and had losses to Maine, East Tennessee State, Lipscomb (twice) and Stetson, all sub-200 teams in Kenpom. They also, however, boast a 26-10 overall record, a regular season win over Miami, and five post-season wins and counting.
A school that has been in existence for a shorter period of time than I have been alive is in the Sweet Sixteen as a 15 seed. A team of one and two-star recruits has made plays on perennial powerhouse Georgetown that look more like a page from the playbook of the Miami Heat than what you'd expect from a school constructed during the Clinton administration with an endowment of just over $57 million (for the record, Wake's is $1.5 billion). A 23-5 run in the second half put the game away for the Eagles, and it happened with three pointers, spectacular fast breaks, steals and thunderous slams. The only question is how?
Well, surely the reasons are many. It's fair to assume that Georgetown and even San Diego State were caught off-guard. It's also a reasonable assumption that many of these players are out-performing their recruitment expectations. However, there's more to it than that. You can't just hand-wave everything the Eagles have done, especially since they also dominated San Diego State, who had to have seen them coming after the Georgetown drubbing.
The biggest factor I can think of is really quite simple. They play loose and, yes, they have fun. Now, this is not to say that every team can, will, or even should play as loose as FGCU does. I doubt very highly that FGCU will go all the way this year. I don't think the Eagles will suddenly be a national powerhouse.
However, it's a very interesting glimpse into something that I think often gets lost in college and even professional basketball: playing loose isn't always bad. It shouldn't be a taboo. It's not like FGCU wasn't executing; there were plenty of plays that looked like the kinds of plays Wake Forest, Georgetown, Wisconsin and other more rigid, set-based offenses look to run. But it never felt like they were shackled by those.
"We earned the right to be here. Nobody gave it to us, and the referee's not gonna give it to us; ain't nobody gonna give it to us now, so we gotta go out there and take it. You feel me?" That was the pre-game speech given by FGCU senior leader Sherwood Brown. That's it. Nothing else, nothing about game plan, or match-ups. A simple declaration of fact that brought the team together and reminded them of what brought them to the dance, and what would ultimately keep them there. A will to win and a togetherness that no one but the players and coaches in that locker room believed in until hours later.
It's naive to suggest that coaching and structure and yes, luck and happenstance, haven't factored into this run. But I've watched the games Florida Gulf Coast has played in the tournament with rapt attention, and even though it's surely there, coaching is not what goes through my mind when I watch those guys play. When I watch them play, all I can think to myself is "Man, those guys are having a blast out there. They're embracing the moment."
I'm reminded of this summer's Triad Pro-Am, when hopes were high and, admittedly, nothing was on the line. All of the Wake guys who played in those games not only looked like they were having a blast, they were playing some good basketball. I'll never forget sitting next to the bench during the game that saw the team led by Codi Miller-McIntyre take down the defending champions in overtime. I was next to Tyler Cavanaugh, who was injured, and we were both losing our minds on the bench as Codi hit a clutch three to tie it. Okay, so nothing was on the line other than bragging rights, and obviously defense is often optional in summer leagues, but that doesn't change the fact it was a high pressure situation that seemed easy at the time, because Codi was in the moment.
Even if you choose to write off the summer league, look at a guy like Aaron Rountree III. Aaron, no disrespect to him, is a prototypical underdog. He wasn't a five star recruit, he's not built like an NBA player, he doesn't even have one skill in particular that he's particularly amazing at (though he has several that he is very good at). However, that's not the point. That's not what comes to mind when I think of Tree. In real games, honest to goodness competition, I cannot think of a guy this year who more consistently made the most of the time he had on the floor, and always left a game-changing impression. I also cannot think of a guy who seemed to be having more fun in the moment.
Obviously, the argument could easily be made that I'm being reductive, and admittedly, having fun won't all of a sudden bring us to a Final Four. But Wake Forest is a team of underdogs. Not on the level of FGCU by any means, but the spirit of the school has always been that of the underdog.
If you ask me, players and coaches alike would do well to learn from another crew of underdogs down in Florida. Execute, scrap, fight, do all the "right things," but don't forget to embrace what you're doing. Have fun, and live in the moment. You might be surprised at the results.
Wake Forest isn't going to be given anything. We have to go out there and take it.