In a state where the Miami Heat seem unbeatable and both the Miami Hurricanes and Florida Gators are in the Sweet Sixteen, the hottest basketball team around is one most people hadn't heard of a week ago: the Florida Gulf Coast University Eagles.
The NCAA tournament resumes Thursday, and all eyes are on the state of Florida. The Hurricanes face Marquette at 7:15 p.m., and on Friday, Dunk City — the nickname for FGCU that has swept the nation — resumes its surprise show, facing cross-state rival Florida at 9:57 p.m. ET.
Led by Coach Andy Enfield, the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles stunned the basketball world by becoming only the seventh 15 seed to advance to the second round of March Madness with a victory over Georgetown. They cemented their Cinderella status with a win over San Diego State, becoming the first 15 seed ever to advance to the Sweet 16.
"It's a party," said Justin Kane, a sophomore journalism major at FGCU and sports editor of the school paper, from his office at the Eagle News. "Last night there were pictures posted of people dancing in the dorms, across campus — it's just a big party. I'm actually looking at a (campus) tour right now that's three times the size of any tour I've seen on campus before."
The team's run is "easily" the biggest thing ever to happen on the Fort Myers campus, Kane said. But that's not saying that much: The school only started offering classes in 1996.
Which makes this Cinderella run all the more remarkable. FGCU's basketball program achieved Division I status in 2011, going 10-20 in their inaugural season under coach Dave Balza. Enfield replaced Balza the following year, and the team improved to 15-17. In October, Kane boldly predicted that the 2012-13 Eagles would be the first team in school history to make it to the dance. But not even he saw this coming.
"I thought they were gonna win the conference and go to the tournament, but I didn’t think they were gonna be this good," Kane said. "I had them beating Georgetown, but losing to San Diego State."
FGCU features four players that played under Balza, including starters Sherwood Brown and Chase Fieler, but Kane says this is Enfield's team, one that he's pulled together with transfers like Eric McKnight and foreign-born players like Croat Filip Cvjeticanin.
"He told those kids, you're gonna build this program," Kane said. "Last year was our first year of eligibility, this is Year One, he told them, it's your program to build. I think that was a great recruiting angle. We have players from Germany and Croatia. He's really getting out there."
After graduating from Johns Hopkins, Enfield enjoyed a successful career as a tech entrepreneur and shooting coach for the Boston Celtics. He isn't a yeller, says Kane, preferring to keep things light, joking with his players and running contests at practice, and he's as popular with students as he is with players, eating many of his meals on campus and taking the time to talk with kids.
This tourney run has made Enfield a beacon of hope to gym rats everywhere. The gap-tooth coach is the NCAA's all-time free throw champ — he hit 92.5% of his free throws as a player at Johns Hopkins. And a decade ago he found the courage to hit on supermodel Amanda Marcum, initially wooing her with a Taco Bell burrito before sealing the deal with an engagement ring tucked between two Krispy Kremes.
"We knew she was a model," said Kane. "We didn't know she was a Maxim lingerie model. We were kinda surprised when that story got uncovered."
The team has earned the nickname Dunk City for its high-flying style of play, which has inspired a video and rap song of the same name. On Sunday, as the FGCU men's and women's tennis teams were awaiting a flight home from Atlanta, they convinced the gate attendant to announce, "Now departing to Dunk City, Fla."
But Florida Gator fans will tell you there's basketball in their state beyond Dunk City. While the Eagles have grabbed the headlines, some experts believe the Gators are the best team in the country right now, and they're 13-point favorites over FGCU in Friday night's game.
Kane is trying to remain realistic about FGCU's chances, but he can't help but think that after what he's seen so far, there's hope the Eagles' stunning run can continue.
"Match up-wise, (Florida's) a much better team," Kane said. "They're a lot stronger, more physical, they're just better athletes. But if we keep it close... If we hang in there with them... this team believes."