March Madness Is For The Underdogs

Every March, 68 college basketball teams are selected by a committee and seeded into a tournament in which they will play each other over the course of three weeks to decide a true national champion. It may not be the most efficient way to determine a national champion but it is absolutely the most exciting.

The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, also known as March Madness, is a nationwide sporting event that entices even the most casual of fans into watching a game or two.

The story lines throughout the tournament are infinite and the drama is omnipresent as so-called “Cinderella teams” play against powerhouse programs and sometimes come out on top. Unlike football, where teams must field a team of 85, a powerful college basketball team need only assemble 13 players. Any team can compete, any team can win.

This year’s “Cinderella” is the Florida Gulf Coast University Eagles, but “Cinderella” is a pejorative term for these Eagles. Their run is not by accident. They beat both Georgetown and San Diego State – who were heavily favored – by ten points each.

They are just a good team, period. They’ve shattered the model of what it means to be an underdog.

Florida Gulf Coast University, or FGCU, had its first on-campus classes in 1997. The men’s basketball team was ineligible for the tournament until it entered Division I play in 2011. In two short years, FGCU has won its conference and is the first NCAA tournament 15-seed to clinch a spot in the Sweet Sixteen.

This sudden change in success is due to the recruitment and development of high-quality players and a style-of-play philosophy by FGCU coach Andy Enfield.

Enfield is a 43-year-old, former Johns Hopkins basketball player who was a shooting coach for the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics after college. He married a former Victoria’s Secret model and left basketball behind for an entrepreneurial career. Enfield founded a startup in 2000 that managed real estate and medical personnel contracts called TractManager. In 2006, he left the company – then valued at $100 million – for an assistant coaching job at Florida State University. After five years in Tallahassee, he became the head coach of FGCU.

Enfield has turned the beach-front, Fort Myers school into a high-flying basketball wunderkind in only two years, and is now possibly the hottest coaching commodity in the country.

Barely qualifying for the tournament, FGCU was widely regarded as an underdog – and still is. But its playing style, Enfield’s style, is infectious. Team members shoot unconscionable threes, are constantly dunking, throw up lobs and alley-oops and actually play unselfishly. They play like a team that is actually having fun.

They have nothing to lose, and they play like it.

No other sport presents an opportunity like this. College football is glacially advancing towards its own March Madness-style playoff system but the Southeastern Conference – who has won the previous seven consecutive football national championships – will still dominate that “tournament”.

College basketball’s playoff structure – and parity within the ranks of the sport – allows a 16-year-old school that people last week would have identified with hurricanes and spring breakers, a legitimate shot at a national championship. And that makes for an exciting three weeks in March.

*This column also appeared in the March 28th PCC Courier. Minus all the pictures and links to dunks and ‘oops.

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