National Columnist

Florida Gulf Coast acts like it belongs in the big time

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ARLINGTON, Texas -- They charmed the crowd at Cowboys Stadium, which is no shock. Not anymore. Two weeks ago most of us had never heard of Florida Gulf Coast, but now we know them as the most charming team in the Sweet 16 -- a guileless group of underdogs and overachievers led by the coach with the gap in his teeth and starring players with egos so small, they wore the wrong jersey numbers for their open practice Thursday.

Imagine that. Thousands of fans showed up to watch open practices at Cowboys Stadium, one day before South Region has its Sweet 16 games, and Florida Gulf Coast pranked everybody by swapping out jerseys. Unless it wasn't a prank. Maybe they just don't care.

"I think that's what it is," FGCU athletics director Ken Kavanagh said.

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Brett Comer, the point guard averaging 12 assists through two NCAA Tournament games, wears the number zero but wore his No. 3 practice jersey from last season. Eric McKnight, who has 36 dunks and 46 blocks this season -- the dunks are listed first in the team's official game notes -- wears No. 12 but wore Chase Fieler's No. 20 on Thursday. Fieler, who finished off the team's most memorable alley oop in the first-round defeat of Georgetown, wore Sherwood Brown's No. 25. Brown, the Atlantic Sun Conference player of the year, wore a nondescript gray T-shirt.

How will the team's newfound fame, triggered by the opening weekend -- when FGCU became the first No. 15 seed to qualify for the Sweet 16 -- affect the Eagles? My guess: It won't. Fame doesn't affect people who don't care about it, and the Eagles don't seem to care. They are unaffected, and without affectations. Fieler was one of three FGCU players tabbed for the team's televised media conference Thursday. When he spotted ESPN's Tom Rinaldi, who had spent a day on campus earlier this week, Fieler raised a hand and waved.

Star athletes don't do that, but these guys aren't stars. Not as far as they know. For years they've walked around campus without much recognition, playing at half-empty Alico Arena -- capacity is 4,500; average home attendance this season was 2,290 -- and being referred to as recently as last week as "Florida State" by San Diego State coach Steve Fisher, minutes after FGCU eliminated SDSU in the Round of 32.

We know their name now, of course.

"Things have certainly changed in a week," Enfield said.

Things certainly have -- and it's hard to say who's the biggest winner here. It could be Florida Gulf Coast, in just its second season as a full-fledged member of Division I, and only because the Division II league in Florida, the Sunshine State Conference, told the Eagles almost a decade ago that they weren't welcome; not as a public school competing against the private schools that comprise the SSC.

But the big winner could be us, seeing how we've gotten to meet the most charming underdog in NCAA Tournament history. Underdogs are charming almost by definition, and George Mason and Davidson and VCU and Butler were charming in their own ways. But we've never seen a team like Florida Gulf Coast, running and dunking and celebrating its shocking victories by doing the chicken dance in the locker room.

On Thursday the Eagles charmed the crowd at Cowboys Stadium with an impromptu dunk show. I was talking to Kavanagh, the AD, when it started and I asked him to wait. I needed to watch this.

"Ah," he said. "The Dunk City stuff."

Right.

"Not everyone can dunk, by the way," Kavanagh said, and on cue a 6-foot-3 guard named Bernard Thompson tried a two-handed dunk and was rejected by the rim. The Dunk City stuff ended minutes later when Comer tried a one-handed jam and wedged the ball between the rim and backboard. The crowd groaned, but by then they'd been treated to some craziness. Cromer had completed one alley oop to himself -- below the rim, but still -- with a rainbow soccer kick (a rainbow looks like this) and he started another by leaping, putting the ball between his legs and tossing it off the backboard to Fieler for the ferocious finish.

Then practice was over and the crowd was on its feet, even fans from other schools in town, like Michigan and Kansas. Florida fans didn't seem to be standing and cheering, not that I blame them. This Florida Gulf Coast team is scary, and might just win Friday. Would it be an upset? On paper, sure. In real life? Not so sure.

The Gators have two flighty guards in Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario, who have a combined 3,695 career points and some major flaws: Boynton is a career 39.8 percent shooter and Rosario has significantly more turnovers (269) than assists (193). If Boynton is a high-volume shooter who can't shoot and Rosario is throwing passes into the third row, Florida Gulf Coast wins. Maybe FGCU wins regardless. Either way, I can't wait to watch it.

Neither can you. You've been waiting five days for the next game by Florida Dunk Coast, and you know it. The Eagles have won us over from afar, and they're even more charming in person.

Here's what happened when the team's 50-minute public practice ended Thursday:

Sherwood Brown did the chicken dance at halfcourt. Comer ran over to get a picture with TBS analyst Steve Kerr. Then the whole team trotted toward the crowd, which wanted autographs. The Florida Gulf Coast players were happy to oblige, but all of them stood in line to take care of a little boy reaching over the railing, a kid of 5 or 6. Damn near the entire FGCU roster signed that little kid's program before fanning out and taking care of everyone else.

Little guys have to stick together, see.


Gregg Doyel is a columnist for CBSSports.com. He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.
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