Florida Gulf Coast Basketball: Anatomy of Eagles' Cinderella Run to Sweet 16

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Florida Gulf Coast Basketball: Anatomy of Eagles' Cinderella Run to Sweet 16
Rob Carr/Getty Images

Historical records will tell some future version of you that the 2012-13 Florida Gulf Coast Eagles were the first-ever NCAA tournament team seeded 15th or lower to make the Sweet 16.

Based on that fact alone, you'd necessarily place the Eagles alongside VCU, Butler, George Mason and the like in your personal pantheon of Cinderella greatness. You'd fete them with the proper "firsts." You'd acknowledge the proper precedent.

And frankly, you'd be selling FGCU short.

What makes the Eagles such a phenomenon is not that they've won two NCAA tournament games they were expected to lose, but rather that they won those games in such absorbingly conclusive fashion (both on the scoreboard and to the aesthetic eye).

Given the right breaks, any 15th seed can win a game or two. I know that sounds preposterous, but basketball is a funny game. Winning consecutive games in the NCAA tournament can be—and often is—a simple statistical anomaly.

Florida Gulf Coast, however, is undressing elite teams, beating them in ways that should make us question the very power structure of modern college basketball.

At no point have the Eagles dabbled in circumstance or even appeared over-matched. They've looked quicker, bouncier and altogether more capable than their opponents. They've looked, in sum, like a team beating teams they're supposed to beat.

Consecutive 10-point victories tell part of that story—FGCU is the only team seeded 13th or lower to win back-to-back games by double digits—but the tactical and programmatic brilliance driving those margins may be more revealing still.

Here's how they're doing it.

 

The Dunks

Public reaction to FGCU's run has predictably coalesced around the Eagles' athleticism, in particular their penchant for aerial theatrics.

On one hand, the "dunk city" moniker threatens to obscure all the other things Florida Gulf Coast does well (pass, shoot, play defense, etc.). On the other, it drives at the collective physical attributes that make FGCU such a thoroughly modern basketball phenomenon.

Throughout college basketball history, there have always been rare athletic outliers who fall through the recruiting cracks and end up elevating some backwater program to relevance. Larry Bird wound up at Indiana State. Santa Clara lucked into Steve Nash. Lord only knows how tiny Guilford College landed World B. Free.

But the Eagles aren't one athletic outlier. They're a team of athletic outliers.

And in that way, they aren't really an outlier at all.

Three decades ago, a program of FGCU's station—founded in 1991, fully minted D-I in 2011—wouldn't have been able to attract a roster full of high-flying athletes.

Yet the Eagles have—not because coach Andy Enfield and his predecessor, Dave Balza, necessarily recruited over their heads but because the abundance of basketball talent now exceeds our capacity to harvest it.

In other words, FGCU landed the caliber of recruits you would expect FGCU to land. The difference is the depth of quality recruits now available to lower-tier programs.

Rob Carr/Getty Images
According to ESPN's prospect database, FGCU's top-rated recruit over the last six years is current point guard Brett Comer, a 2-star athlete out of Winter Park, Fla. Leaper Chase Fieler garnered only one star. Leading scorer Sherwood Brown doesn't even have a profile.

As fast as the basketball recruiting industry has grown, it would appear that it hasn't been able to keep pace with the influx of prep talent.

Part of the reason for that is basketball's growing popularity abroad, as well as the burgeoning democratization of high school recruiting.

It's considered something of a given in college basketball circles that AAU and other high-exposure youth leagues have ruined the game by emphasizing individual skill, disincentivizing team play and inflating young egos well out of proportion.

What we fail to acknowledge is how these networks flatten the recruiting playing field, allowing athletes to market their skills to a wider range of coaches and allowing coaches to scout players from other parts of the country (and world) that they otherwise wouldn't have seen.

The result is that a branch campus school with zero basketball history like FGCU can recruit players from West Virginia (Fieler), Georgia (Bernard Thompson), Maryland (Leonard Livingston) and Central Freaking Europe (Christophe Varidel, Alexander Blessig, Filip Cvjeticanin).

In fact, only one player on the FGCU roster, North Fort Myers native Eddie Murray, is actually from Florida's Gulf Coast.

Look around D-I at every level, and you'll see similarly constructed programs. Even the smallest schools are no longer bound by geography in their recruiting patterns.

That combined with the quickening pace of basketball's popularity ensures that almost every roster will have its share of highlight-reel athletes.

So yes, the FGCU Eagles can dunk. In that way they are both remarkable and tellingly emblematic.

 

The Offense

Whenever evaluating a Cinderella's performance, the first question we often ask is, "How many threes did they hit?"

The answer in FGCU's case is, "Not as many as you'd expect."

In both frequency of attempts and success rate, the Eagles were an average three-point shooting team this season.

They ranked 195th nationally in three-point percentage at 33.4 percent, and 135th in three-point attempts as a ratio of overall field-goal tries (34.6 percent).

In tournament play, FGCU has shot a better percentage from beyond but has actually taken fewer three-point shots than usual, and in each case the differences are incremental.

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So far during the postseason, the Eagles have taken just 30.1 percent of their shots from three and hit a modest 39.4 percent of those attempts. The fact that FGCU hasn't faced a large deficit in either tournament game accounts for some of that data.

What it doesn't account for is why the Eagles are building and maintaining leads in the first place. And if it isn't the three ball, then what is it?

Obviously FGCU's open-court athleticism has been critical. So too is Florida Gulf Coast's excellent offensive spacing and timely use of backdoor cuts, the latter of which was particularly effective against Georgetown (of all teams).

But when I browse the statistics, what stands out is the turnovers, or, in this case, FGCU's lack of turnovers.

On most accounts, the Eagles had a good offense this year. They shot a great percentage from inside the arc (52.4 percent), rebounded at a decent clip and posted an excellent effective field-goal percentage (51.6 percent).

And yet Andy Enfield's team finished just 114th in adjusted offensive efficiency. As you might imagine, turnovers were the main culprit.

The Eagles turned the ball over on 20.7 percent of their possessions this year, a mark that left them 220th nationally in ball security.

So far in the tournament, though, that mark has dropped to somewhere in the neighborhood of 18 percent (hand calculation). That may sound like a small dip, but it's significant when you consider that FGCU hasn't abandoned its freewheeling style of play in the process.

And really any drop in turnover rate for a double-digit seed facing a team like Georgetown (which ranked 47th nationally in defensive turnover percentage) is impressive, regardless of circumstance.

Since regular season turnover rates aren't adjusted for competition, we generally expect underdogs to turn the ball over more frequently than normal in games against higher-tier competition. For lower-seeded teams that do fall into that pattern, usually the only way out is an exemplary shooting performance.

In FGCU's case, the exact opposite has been true. The Eagles have actually become stronger with the ball, thereby eliminating the need to shoot more than usual from the perimeter.


The Defense

In addition to their gripes with AAU ball, college basketball nitpickers also like to prattle on about how zone defenses muck up the game.

And it's true. Zone defenses often damage college basketball's visual appeal. Believe me, no one ever mistook a Syracuse game for a night at the theater.

But zones are also a fantastic equalizing agent that (a) give lesser teams a means to defend superior athletes and (b) add wonderful layers of tactical complexity to an otherwise straightforward game.

Former Penn player Stephen Danley, writing for Sports Illustrated, penned a fascinating post on the way FGCU switched in and out of different defensive alignments during the San Diego State game.

Danley in particular noted a 1-3-1 formation the Eagles used during their decisive second-half spurt, a defense that Danley says was decidedly different from the usual 1-3-1 and palpably unfamiliar to the Aztec players.

He writes:

Assistant coach Kevin Norris described the zone as “a simple matchup” with a wink and a smile, insisting he needed to “keep it under wraps” because there were more games to play. But the zone was anything but typical. A standard 1-3-1 defense is designed to extend to half court and trap in the corners.

Instead, FGCU used it to pack the paint, with forward Chase Fieler serving as a center fielder and roaming the foul-line area. Norris insisted the goal of the defense was to mix and confuse opponents. At its best “it may look like a 1-3-1 and end up being a 1-2-1-1.” That type of disguise of the base configuration of the defense makes it harder for an offense to figure out what to run.

I will admit that Danley's understanding of the Xs and Os is beyond anything I can truly comprehend.

Will FGCU beat Florida in the Sweet 16?

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But the assistant coach's response to Danley's observation tells me that Florida Gulf Coast is indeed massaging some foreign elements into its game plan. And it appears the Eagles have caught a couple of generally well-coached teams off-guard.

Whether any of this will hold against Florida in the Sweet 16 is a debate for another space.

The Gators will have more prep time than San Diego State and more game tape than Georgetown. They've also been one of the best teams in the country this year, and their athleticism on the perimeter will be a challenge for FGCU's guards.

Then again, Florida has lost 15 times in the NCAA tournament.

The Eagles never have.

 

Note: All advanced statistics courtesy of KenPom.com

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