Everyone remembers the scenes in Philadelphia when the high-flying, carefree Florida Gulf Coast Eagles shocked the basketball world by taking down Georgetown and San Diego State, becoming the first 15 seed to ever reach the Sweet 16.
A new cast of characters, led by fifth year head coach Joe Dooley, have thoughts of making noise of their own. They return to the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season after a sterling 2016-17 campaign that ended in a program-tying 26 wins, and the Eagles gave scares to Baylor and Michigan State on the road in their non-conference slate.
The Eagles might be playing their best ball of the season after dispatching Atlantic Sun foes Stetson, Kennesaw State and North Florida by a combined 58 points in the conference tournament.
They’ll now get a crack at the Florida State Seminoles in a 3-14 matchup which takes place in what figures to be a neutral site in Orlando, and hopefully a site where the Dirty Bird faithful figure to be out in full force in the late game on Thursday night.
How they can win
FGCU has a balanced offensive attack, littered with players who excel in different areas of the floor. It starts in the paint, where the Eagles lead the nation in points in the paint per game at 41.5, and translates to a good field goal percentage where FGCU ranks fifth nationally at 50.2%.
Seniors Demetris Morant and Marc-Eddy Norelia anchor the frontcourt, with Antravious Simmons and Kevin Mickle coming off the bench. Morant shoots 76% from the field, with 90% of his field goal attempts coming at the rim where he converts at 78% according to hoop-math.com. Norelia has battled injury and personal issues throughout the year, but averaged 12 points and 11 rebounds in the conference tournament.
The backcourt is where the Eagles can hurt teams with three guys that can initiate offense and score at a high rate. UCF transfer Brandon Goodwin has flown under the radar as one of top mid-major guards all season, averaging 18.2 points, 4.6 rebounds and four assists per game. Goodwin thrives with the ball in his hands in the clutch, and hit three game-winning shots this year.
Zach Johnson and Christian Terrell have had patches of inconsistent play throughout the year, but are both coming into the NCAA Tournament on good form with Johnson averaging 15 points per game over his last four games, and Terrell scoring in double figures in four of his last six games.
Rayjon Tucker and Reggie Reid have been quality bench players in their roles for the Eagles. Tucker is a 45% shooter from distance to pair with his athleticism and finishes at the rim. Reid is a steady ball-handler with a 2:1 assist-turnover ratio on the season.
How they can lose
In the seven losses on the season, the Eagles have had issues with turnovers, averaging just under 15 turnovers in those contests.
Teams with length such as Florida State usually throw zone looks at the Eagles, daring the guards to hoist 3-pointers up. Goodwin and Johnson like to get downhill to the basket to try and finish or throw lobs to Morant or find Norelia where he likes to work on the baseline, and a zone can prevent them from doing so.
Morant can have nights where he gets quick whistles that go against him, and going up against a Seminole frontline with more bulk, it will be imperative for him to stay out of foul trouble. The drop off in scoring production in the frontcourt itself after Morant and Norelia is a deep one, with Simmons also being a liability defensively if teams get him involved in pick-and-roll action.
Dooley’s rotation has included freshmen 6’7 RaySean Scott, Jr. and 6’6 Christian Carlyle at times, and it would not be a surprise to see both on the floor if fouls pile up. With the depth that Leonard Hamilton uses, Dooley will likely need to give his key players blows if possible.
Also of note, with their conference tournament taking place a full week prior to most others, the Eagles will go 11 days in between game action, which can always be difficult jumping right back into the fire on a stage like the NCAA Tournament.