Remember Dunk City? The alter ego of Florida Gulf Coast University was hoping to dance again, ready to resurrect the title bestowed on them last season when they became the first 15 seed to advance into the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. But this year Florida Gulf Coast was denied a trip to the dance by another team hoping to become national darlings, Mercer University.
The FGCU Eagles became a phenomenon not only for their repeated upset wins, but for the flair in which they won and the personality of their head coach, Andy Enfield. This year things shaped up a bit differently. The most noticeable change was that Enfield was gone, taking the top job at the University of Southern California as head men’s basketball coach. While Enfield has gotten a higher profile job in a larger athletic department in a much better regarded conference, as well as a raise, his team finished 11-20 and will not be anywhere close to the NCAA tournament–or even the NIT tournament. Florida Gulf Coast University and their new coach Joe Dooley may not be going to the NCAA tournament, but after a solid season they will be in the NIT and may even be hosting a game, depending on seeding.
Their head coach was not the only change from last season. Fans of last year’s Cinderella squad who watched FGCU get taken down by Mercer University on Sunday may have noticed the absence of perhaps their best and most recognizable player from their memorable run. Sherwood Brown, who graduated after winning the Atlantic Sun Conference player of the year honor last season, is currently playing in the NBADL for the Maine Red Claws after going undrafted int he 2013 NBA draft. In spite of the changes, FGCU surpassed last season’s win total and was within eight points of an NCAA tournament birth, but now the Mercer Bears are the underdogs hoping to take down a one or two seed. Mercer is no less an impressive story this season than FGCU last, as they are making their first tournament showing since Ronald Reagan’s second term as president.
So who are the Mercer Bears? Residing in Georgia, the university has finished with 24 wins or more in each of the last three seasons. Mercer was the regular season champion of the Atlantic Sun Conference last season, and would have been headed to the big dance if not for Florida Gulf Coast charging through them for an upset in the conference championship game.
If Mercer University is able to repeat the success of their conference counterpart it should not be a surprise. Before denying Florida Gulf Coast University a chance at the tournament, Mercer had several quality wins over major conference schools. A victory at SEC school Ole Miss on national television may have won them some fans. The Bears also beat Yale, a quality team who very nearly won their conference and made the tournament themselves. Led by point guard Langston Hall, Mercer ranks 21st in the entire country in points per game, and 10th in scoring differential. The team is a very good three point shooting squad, an asset that lends itself to big upsets if they can get hot in any particular game.
Mercer University is a team to watch for, and perhaps the one that will leave a number of brackets torn up and left on the floor come opening weekend. They are not built to dominate schools with big depth, and they will not overpower anyone inside. But the same things were said about Florida Gulf Coast last year. There is a lot to be said for energy and shooting, especially in a one-and-done style tournament like the NCAA. Mercer might just force a lot of people to learn who they are.
By Brian Moore