In a parity-packed tournament, one where four Sweet 16 teams were underdogs in their opening game, one Cinderella stands head and shoulders above the rest.
The Florida Gulf Coast Eagles have soared in their first-ever NCAA tournament appearance, coasting to victories over Georgetown and San Diego State. More than anything, though, they have captured the nation's attention with their coach, their dunks and their childlike giddiness in victory.
But the stiffest test is still in their windshield, not their rear view. Because awaiting them in Arlington is a recent national champion and current in-state powerhouse, Billy Donovan's Florida Gators.
Can FGCU keep the magic going? Unlikely, but certainly possible. If the Eagles want to turn that possibility into reality, though, here are three things they absolutely have to do:
Control the Tempo
It's not like Florida is incapable of playing uptempo basketball. Lord knows the Gators certainly have the athletes for it. But they usually prefer not to, which in a vacuum might play into Florida Gulf Coast's hands.
Per Ken Pomeroy, the Gators rank 303rd (out of 347) in the nation in adjusted tempo. That's the lowest among remaining tournament teams (by a wide margin, no less), and a stark contrast to the Eagles, who rank 35th. For the sake of sheer poetry, that's the highest among teams left in the field.
Now that doesn't necessarily mean Florida Gulf Coast will be able to run on the Gators. Nothing is that easy. And for what it's worth, in overall ratings, Pomeroy has Florida as the nation's top team—and did so even before the tournament.
What it means is that, so long as the Eagles are smart about when and where and how they push the ball, they have a chance to make Florida uncomfortable. They have a chance to make a much, much better opponent play a style of basketball they prefer to avoid.
And when looking for an upset of this magnitude, that's about as much as you can ask for.
Limit Patric Young
FGCU has survived high-major opponents this year in a way most A-Sun teams aren't fortunate enough to deploy. The Eagles have matched their athleticism.
Much ado has been made of the Eagles' high-flying antics, especially from the frontcourt. Chase Fieler and Eric McKnight—one 6'8'', the other 6'9''—have both left an indelible impression on this tournament with their dunks. But they also handled Otto Porter in Round 1, and even matched up with the likes of Reggie Johnson and Kenny Kadji during a regular-season upset of Miami.
Patric Young, however, is a physical specimen the likes of which they have never seen. He looks like Dwight Howard (sans the arrogant smirk) and plays with an edge that instills fear in frontcourt opponents. More importantly, though, after a full week of listening to media outlets laud FGCU's athleticism, he might have a serious chip on his back.
The Eagles not only need to limit—not stop, limit—Young on the offensive end, though. They also need to take it at him on the other side of the floor. They cannot let his towering, imposing presence affect their ability to head towards the rim.
Sixteen of FGCU's 33 field goals against San Diego State were either dunks, layups or tips. If the Eagles continue attacking with that type of confidence, they might have a chance against Florida. But if they let Young get into their head defensively, we might not see the same Eagles we've come to know and love.
Florida is beatable. No. 1 ranking in Pomeroy's ratings aside, we know this to be true. If they weren't, they wouldn't be a No. 3 seed.
But they're also a lot, lot better than their in-state quasi-rival. That doesn't make them a lock to win by any stretch, but it does mean that they will unless something goes wrong.
What Florida does best is create open shots on the outside. That's deadly because, like so many teams who seek to shoot threes, they have a preponderance of shooters. But also like so many teams who seek to shoot threes, they occasionally die by the outside shot.
If Mike Rosario and Erik Murphy and Kenny Boynton have an on-shooting game, it will be almost impossible for Florida to lose. But if one or two or all of them struggle, which has certainly happened before, it's not inconceivable to see FGCU advancing.
Either way, we'll find out this weekend, beyond a shadow of a doubt, whether or not this team is truly kissed by destiny.