Men's basketball: Enfield's Eagles on the rise, heading to NCAA tourney

Scott McIntyre/Staff
FGCU players celebrate after defeating Mercer University in the final game of the Atlantic Sun Basketball Championship at Mercer University in Macon, Ga. on Saturday 88-75.

Photo by SCOTT MCINTYRE // Buy this photo

Scott McIntyre/Staff FGCU players celebrate after defeating Mercer University in the final game of the Atlantic Sun Basketball Championship at Mercer University in Macon, Ga. on Saturday 88-75.

What’s next: FGCU finds out its NCAA tournament opponent next Sunday at 6 p.m. on CBS’s hourlong Selection Show.

When: The NCAA tournament’s field of 64 plays March 21-24. The Eagles may have to survive a play-in game, to be held Tuesday, March 19.

Enfield’s prediction: FGCU’s coach expects the Eagles to end up between a 12 and 14 seed based on its Rating Percentage Index. In the RPI, FGCU is ranked No. 103 with the 212th strongest schedule in the country.

Expert predictions: ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi had Mercer as a No. 16 seed. So FGCU could expect a similar seed.

A look at some of the numbers in FGCU's run to the NCAA tournament

80 The FGCU men at 7-0 this season when they score 80 points, including Saturday’s 88-75 win over Mercer in the A-Sun championship.

39 Wins under second-year coach Andy Enfield, the same number of wins in four seasons before Enfield combined.

24 Victories for the FGCU men team, the most for the Eagles in six seasons playing in Division I.

21 Points sophomore guard Brett Comers scored for team-high honors, matching his season high.

20 The number of consecutive games the FGCU men have led at halftime. The Eagles were up 38-36 on Mercer despite trailing by eight point five minutes into the game. “I don’t make any pregame speeches or pep talks,” coach Andy Enfield said. “That’s on these guys. They get each other ready to play, then they come out and do it.”

17 — FGCU’s biggest lead of the game. Also, Mercer’s home winning streak heading into the game.

11 Rebounds for 6-foot-4 senior guard Sherwood Brown, a game-high Saturday that tied Brown’s season best.

9 FGCU junior forward Chase Fieler’s point total in a 2 minute, 3 second span in the second half to give the Eagles a 74-59 lead with 6:51 to play.

7 The FGCU men hit seven straight free throws in the final 70 seconds against Mercer to seal their first A-Sun championship. Junior guard Christophe Varidel was 6-for-6 down the stretch. Also Brett Comer’s scoring average before the game.

3 The number of Eagles on the A-Sun All-Tournament team. S Comer, the tournament MVP, was joined by junior forward Chase Fieler and senior guard Sherwood Brown.

2 Both Eagles teams have only been eligible for the postseason for two years. FGCU moved from Division II to Division I prior to the 2007-08 academic year, but the Eagles had to sit through a four-year probationary period before playing in the A-Sun tournaments.

1 The FGCU men became the first men’s or women’s team in the country to clinch an NCAA Tournament berth when they won the A-Sun championship game, which ended at 2:03 p.m. Saturday.

MACON, Ga. — Florida Gulf Coast University’s men donned their white Atlantic Sun champion caps and T-shirts at midcourt of Mercer’s home floor, then jumped on one another, their mascot, Azul, and the cheerleaders as “Paradise City” blared on the PA.

Macon? Paradise? To the Eagles on Saturday, you bet.

With their 88-75 runaway A-Sun tournament title-game win against top-seeded Mercer, the Eagles finished a stunning two-year sprint into the NCAA tourney.

In just its 11th year and after a combined 55-99 record its first five Division I seasons, FGCU (24-10) notched its first-ever inclusion into the NCAA bracket, which now sports 68 teams.

Eagles guard Sherwood Brown has been at FGCU four seasons, including two really slow ones before Andy Enfield took over.

“This feels really great,” said Brown, the A-Sun Player of the Year. “I feel like Drake (rapper Aubrey Drake Graham) said it best: ‘We started from the bottom. Now we’re here.’”

Here was unfathomable just two seasons ago.

Through four seasons of transition into Division I — during which FGCU wasn’t eligible for the A-Sun tourney — those lethargic Eagles flopped to a combined 39-82 record. After the fourth, a 10-20 stinker, FGCU fired program-founding coach Dave Balza.

“I did not imagine this two years ago,” said a sweaty FGCU President Wilson Bradshaw after pulling on his championship T-shirt and while watching the Eagles clip the net. “I knew we had somebody special. All the information we got when we recruited Andy was just super. We knew he was going to do great things, but we didn’t know it was going to happen this quickly.”

FGCU athletic director Ken Kavanagh selected Enfield to rebuild the Eagles. A wide-eyed Kavangh buzzed around the Hawkins Arena floor after the Eagles hoisted their crystal trophy.

“I couldn’t have dreamed this,” Kavanagh said. “But with Andy, anything is possible.”

You could, though, start to see this coming.

The Eagles faithful witnessed the future with the Nov. 13 home win against now-No. 6 and Atlantic Coast Conference champion Miami, The all-time marquee victory gave the Eagles confidence. FGCU led at Duke — Duke! — for a half. Ditto at St. John’s. The Eagles gave Iowa State a scare in Ames before falling by 11.

FGCU won five of its first six A-Sun games and seven straight — five by double digits — from late-January to mid-February. The Eagles finished the regular season a game behind Mercer despite beating the Bears at home on Feb. 28, then the biggest-ever win in a season beginning to burst with those.

Now, with three straight routs in the A-Sun tourney — No. 7 North Florida, No. 3 Stetson and Mercer by a total of 37 points — FGCU has won five in a row.

The stock of Enfield, 43, is obviously rising at a breakneck pace. He already was being mentioned for some of the expected openings and that chatter likely is going to increase. Bradshaw and Kavanagh said they will do everything in their power to keep Enfield, who makes a relatively paltry $157,500 salary.

“To be honest, we need people in our community who love FGCU basketball to help us step up,” Kavanagh said. “We can’t do it on our own with ticket sales at the door. We need donors in our community who love FGCU basketball to contact (assistant AD) Butch (Perchan) or myself to help make sure we can keep Andy as long as we can.”

Enfield quickly dismissed talk of a blurry-quick exit.

“That’s just part of the business,” Enfield said of the speculation. “I haven’t thought about that. I’m so focused on what we’re doing here. I love FGCU.”

Enfield spent the previous five years helping turn Florida State into an ACC power before taking over at FGCU in 2011. In his first season as a head coach, FGCU headed into its initial A-Sun tourney as a 13-16 sixth seed last year. The Eagles made a stirring run to the final, but fell to perennial A-Sun power Belmont, now in the Ohio Valley.

“Last year, we were young and inexperienced,” Enfield said. “We had never been in a situation like this before. We didn’t know how to handle success or failure last year. We were talented. We just didn’t know what we were doing.”

That Belmont team was better than FGCU, Enfield said. Many, if not most, NCAA tournament teams will be, too. But the Eagles certainly won’t be pulling back.

Always looking to fly the floor, the Eagles held a 38-36 halftime lead Saturday, exploded for a 10-2 run to start the second half, then totally blew more methodical Mercer away midway through the second half.

“We withstood the Mercer run at the beginning of the game to take the crowd out of it and then we played our style of up-tempo basketball to spread the floor, and it was very effective,” Enfield said. “We pushed the tempo all (day).”

FGCU learns at 6 p.m. next Sunday its NCAA draw for the March 21-24 first-rounders in the hourlong Selection Show televised by CBS. The Eagles could fly to Auburn Hills, Mich., Austin, Texas, Dayton, Ohio, Kansas City, Lexington, Ky, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City or San Jose.

At present, they are thought to be a 15th seed, meaning the Eagles would have to play a No. 2. The Eagles truly feel they have a team that can pull a shocker or three but they hope to move up to a 14th seed for a stronger shot at becoming the first A-Sun team since former member Georgia State beat Wisconsin in 2001 to win an NCAA game.

“We will not be intimidated,” Enfield said when asked if the Eagles can win an NCAA game. “We’ve seen it all. We’re going to have fun with it. Whoever we play, we’ll give it our best shot.” Enfield said

If so, they’ll do it like this rise and the way they took this tournament. Full-bore.

“We wanted to come out and push everybody and step on everybody and keep pushing and pushing and pushing and not let up,” said Brett Comer, who sparked the Eagles over Mercer with a game-high 21 points. “That’s what we did.

“I feel we did a great job of going and going and going.”

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