Any hopes bracketologists professional, amateur or clueless had of predicting the 2013 NCAA tournament to perfection were dashed by Florida Gulf Coast's stunning Cinderella run to the Sweet 16.
This is the first time in history that a No. 15 seed has made it to this juncture, but the Eagles will face a stiff test on Friday evening against the Florida Gators in a South regional semifinal.
Due to the surprising athleticism and explosiveness of FGCU's lineup, there is a faint chance for an upset against the defensively stout favorites. Here are the keys to victory for Andy Enfield's captivating squad.
Points in the paint
A big part of this team's success has depended on getting to the rim, and that must happen against the Gators to have any chance. Often, these opportunities come in transition, where the Eagles can utilize their outstanding play in the open court to go on momentum-seizing runs.
The methodical Gators, though, will likely try to slow the pace down at least from the start. Patric Young gives Florida a massive presence in the defensive interior, and he will be particularly difficult for the underdogs to negotiate.
As ESPN points out, though, the Eagles like to push the pace in the second half, scoring 34 of their 47 tournament transition points after the midway point.
Florida is easily the best team that FGCU will have faced to this point, so that transition game will likely need to be established earlier before an insurmountable deficit piles up.
While getting Florida's bigs in foul trouble would be nice, it is also crucial that the Eagles capitalize at the free-throw line. Against Georgetown, they made just 30-of-44 attempts, just 67.7 percent as a team.
Locking down the perimeter
The three guards that Florida has are all dangerous, but Mike Rosario is going to be the most important player to focus on. Rosario poured in 25 points in the dominant win over Minnesota in Round 3, and when he gets hot from the outside, the Gators are nearly unbeatable.
Senior big man Erik Murphy provides the biggest mismatch for the Eagles. Murphy truly is a stretch 4 at 6'11", and he shouldn't be bothered when he ventures out to the three-point line.
The Eagles can make up for the size disparity due to Chase Fieler's explosiveness. Fieler must concentrate on the defensive end of the court in addition to throwing down his highlight-reel dunks, and it will be a true test of conditioning for the junior forward to continually chase Murphy off the three-point line.
It's important that Florida Gulf Coast closes out and contests shots, but it's equally vital to not become airborne. That is when senior slasher Kenny Boynton can create off the bounce for his teammates, which will lead to plenty of clean looks and easy hoops for Florida.
Scottie Wilbekin is capable of doing the same for the Gators, and leads the team with five assists per game. Watch for high-scoring Eagles guard Bernard Thompson on defense, too, as FGCU's Twitter page warns:
FGCU Men's Hoops @FGCU_MBB
Bernard Thompson @Ihoop_02 is No. 1 in the nation in steals with 102! He's just two off the #ASunMBB record #WatchYourWallet2013-3-26 19:10:06
A lot of pressure will be on Eagles point guard Brett Comer not only to continue his outstanding distribution (24 assists to five turnovers in two NCAA tournament games), but to man up on defense as well.
Balance on offense
Lone senior starter Sherwood Brown has led the way, but a big key to the Eagles' success has been the balance provided by their prominent contributors.
A lot of credit can be attributed to Comer's wise decisions and judiciousness with the basketball, but Florida Gulf Coast has been executing exceptionally.
In the Georgetown stunner, Brown had 24 points, Bernard Thompson poured in 23, Comer had 11 of his own on top of 10 assists, and forwards Chase Fieler and Eddie Murray had nine apiece.
The victory over San Diego State in Round 3 saw Thompson match his point total from the tournament opener, while Brown had 17. Christophe Varidel netted 11 off the bench, which was matched by Fieler. Comer hit double figures with 10, and Eric McKnight—who didn't score in the round of 64—pitched in nine points of his own.
The guard trio of Comer, Brown and Thompson will be intriguing to watch against the likes of Rosario, Boynton and Wilbekin—especially since Wilbekin is such a challenge to get around.
Brown's superior length will provide him with a slight edge in his matchup, which he must utilize to his advantage if the Eagles hope to have any chance of advancing to the Elite Eight.
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