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Both Cinderellas, UMBC is trying to capitalize like FGCU

As the March sweethearts faced off on Sunday, let’s take some time to reflect on their rise and what’s next.

NCAA Basketball Tournament - Second Round - Charlotte Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

College Sports is about getting hot at the right time. Go on a streak, win a few games, make some memories and the overall landscape of a program can change. In college basketball, that can truly happen within a month.

That month is March and its filled with madness. Pure madness. Busted brackets, money lost, work not being done at work, and major programs being humbled by losing too early. Florida Gulf Coast and UMBC can most definitely relate. FGCU’s Dunk City barrage in 2013 and UMBC’s slaying of a number one seed in 2018 are moments that caused absolute madness.

Yes, we’ve seen mid-majors win but these two programs fully took on the underdog role and even capitalized through branding and consistent talk of their respective feats. Their roads were different and their stories are a few years apart, but as FGCU and UMBC clashed last Sunday, there’s no better time to revisit their respective rises. Also, let’s see how FGCU has fared since they dunked all over everyone in 2013. And finally, let’s predict UMBC’s future after their major rise last March.

How did they get there?

Before busting everyone’s brackets and making grown people cry, FGCU and UMBC had to get to the tournament. Their levels of effort varied.

FGCU’s run in 2013 was smooth sailing. Even before their conference slate, the Eagles defeated Miami in the second game of the season. They later went on to lose close games to St.John’s and Iowa State. During conference play in the Atlantic Sun, the Eagles did damage, going 13-5 in the process. Then-coach Andy Enfield was creating something special.

Despite the dominance, FGCU had to go through Mercer. The Bears were a year away from memorably beating Duke, but that season, they were still the top dog in the A-Sun, winning the league with a 14-4 record. After going through the first two rounds of the postseason tournament, FGCU got its revenge and claimed their tourney berth. So to make things short, FGCU was chasing the best team in their conference all season.

But for UMBC, it took some dramatics at the end. UMBC went 12-4 during conference play a season ago. That’s great and worth noting but Vermont was just on another level. They went 15-1 during the conference slate and even made some noise early in the season. The Catamounts opened the season by losing by four points to Kentucky, in Rupp Arena. For a mid-major, that’s basically a win. As the season moved on, the Catamounts basically beat up on the America East, with a one-point defeat against Hartford being their only loss.

UMBC had a decent season but Vermont did not show any mercy. The Catamounts defeated the Retrievers by 15 points during their first matchup. Their second clash wasn’t nice at all as Vermont won by 28 on the road. So most people predicted Vermont to cruise to the NCAA Tournament, especially after winning their first two games in the AE by 15 and 19 points, respectively.

UMBC would meet Vermont on its home court for the AE Tournament Championship. With 3.9 seconds left, Jairus Lyles called game, conference, and an NCAA Tournament bid....sending Vermont to the NIT in the process.

Both teams were good during their respective regular season runs but how they made their impact in the tournament is somewhat different.

”No one could have foretold the future, but I knew that we had a good season, played some tough competition and we had a ton of chemistry...So I had a feeling that something special was going to happen for us in that tournament,” [said Andy Enfield].

How did they make their impact?

FGCU was a 13-point underdog against Georgetown in a 15-2 game. UMBC faced Virginia as a 16 seed, and was basically a 23-point underdog.

FGCU was powered by Sherwood Brown who averaged a little over 15 points. Bernard Thompson was right behind him with 14 points. For UMBC, Lyles was just that guy, his big-time scoring (20 PPG) helped keep UMBC in many games during the season. Joe Sherburne and KJ Maura were consistent help as well.

Both were big underdogs, and nonetheless made their mark against high competition.

FGCU played rather close to Georgetown during their contest. But in the second half, the Eagles put up 54 points. So yes, they made their impression by being the seventh 15th seed to be a 2-seed but really, FGCU morphed into Dunk City. Florida Gulf Coast dunked all over Georgetown. Lobs, tomahawks, more lobs. The game was close but FGCU won with style, and finesse. Georgetown arguably hasn’t recovered since.

UMBC made its impact on the court and off the court. Although it’s hard, they really took advantage of Virginia’s Achilles’ heel: an offense. UMBC shot all over Virginia with no remorse. And what’s interesting, it seems liked UVA would grind UMBC down. The game was tied at 21 at halftime. Then brutality came into play as UMBC rained down a 53-33 second-half performance. The Retrievers shot 50 percent from the three-point line and 54 percent from the floor. Lyles dropped 28 points, Sherburne chipped in with 14 points as well and the rest was, quite literally, history.

But what makes a good March Cinderella run is how the team embraces the moment. For FGCU, ‘Dunk City’ was the calling and the program still uses the branding until this day. For UMBC, their Twitter account took everything to another level. Here are some examples from that magical night:

FGCU rose to fame by dunking all over people and playing sound basketball. UMBC shot over the best defensive team in the nation and trolled and GIF’d their way to fame on Twitter. Zach Seidel was in charge of the account and he turned himself into a March legend, without even playing a minute.

Comparing the two runs isn’t the best thing to do. What’s worth looking at is how both schools took advantage of the moment. They won on the court, fed into their own hype, and used social media to increase their overall reach and perception. It’s how mid-majors are taking advantage of their moments and it’s a new realm.

Imagine if Valparaiso had Twitter in 1998. Imagine Gonzaga with the full use of social media when it came to national attention in 1999. Like other mid-majors of late, FGCU and UMBC are examples of the correct way to use common tech and branding after major wins; wins that pushed them in the future.

How did both programs fare after?

UMBC lost to Kansas State in the next round, 50-43. Their feat of being the first 16-seed to defeat a 1-seed is big enough alone. And besides, their Twitter account was pure entertainment and still is. FGCU kept things going. They beat a power that was San Diego State and fell to Florida after that.

After that season, Enfield went to USC but Dunk City did not falter at all. FGCU was the A-Sun regular season chams the next season under the leadership of Joe Dooley. In his five seasons as mayor of Dunk City, he won at least 21 games. He led FGCU to back-to-back tournament berths during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons. Dooley is now in his first season coaching at East Carolina. Michael Fly is now the coach of FGCU after spending the previous seven years as an assistant coach on the Eagles’ staff.

FGCU used its run to boost their program on another level. They won the ESPY for “Best Upset,” an award that’s dominated by mid-majors:

  • Bucknell in 2005: 64–63 upset over Kansas
  • Northern Iowa in 2010: 69–67 upset over Kansas
  • VCU in 2011: 71–61 upset over Kansas
  • Mercer in 2014: 78–71 upset over Duke

As mentioned before, FGCU has not stopped since then. They are the only Div. I men’s team in the state of Florida to have 20 wins and reach the postseason in the past six seasons. In the past seven seasons, they rank third in the state with 143 wins. Their schedule has even grown stronger. After their dominant 76-53 win over UMBC last Sunday, Fly highlighted his team’s hard path so far this season. The Eagles have faced Illinois State, Michigan State, and South Dakota State. They still have to face Florida and Ole Miss as well. Despite their record right now, FGCU are still legit.

Their arrival on the national stage was perfect timing. The program has only been Div. I for a short amount of time compared to most schools but it does not seem that way. As the Eagles rained 13-three pointers on UMBC Sunday night, I saw the legitamacy for myself.

What’s next for UMBC?

Success is always great but it brings pressure. Ryan Odom is good at taking it. His first two seasons were 20 win seasons. He coached UMBC to an NCAA Tournament berth last year. A few three-pointers and bracket busting late he coached that same team to the biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history to most. A win so big, UMBC has a banner with the game score on it.

That’s pressure. True pressure, national pressure. Mentally, a hurdle that this program has to get over is remembering the moment but moving on and making progress.

“It’s not easy,” Odom said earlier this season.

The UMBC coach was real with the media after his team’s win over Coppin State a few weeks ago. He understands that “everybody wants to talk about it”. Despite the talk, Odom recognizes that “this team has to make its own way.”

That’s the biggest hurdle for the program. The team aspect. UMBC’s roster is mostly new in terms of roles and actually being on the team. Lyles and Maura are gone. Trying to replicate their skills and magic is quite hard to do. Like most teams, the next man up philosophy comes into play.

Sherburne and K.J. Jackson are taking that role head-on. Sherburne has averaged over 10 points per game in his career at UMBC. He’s expected to score more and has done so. He scored 24 points against Air Force and 22 points against Coppin State so far this season.

Jackson has stepped up immediately for the Retrievers. On the JUCO level last season, he was third in the nation with 25.8 points per game at Temple College. He’s showed his potential as he’s active on both sides of the floor. The guard is averaging a little over 12 points so far this season. Brandon Horvath and Arkel Lamar are stepping up as well.

The UMBC Events Center is still pretty much new. The Under Armour uniforms are sharp. And UMBC’s fan base is strong. There’s not that much to upgrade or splurge on as we’ve seen mid-majors do after major wins in the past. With a roster that’s changing and still getting acclimated, UMBC’s “what’s next” is dependent on their performance and ability to win.