There are actually eight Sweet 16 games taking place on Thursday and Friday. It might be difficult to believe that, considering the Florida Gulf Coast adoration in which we have all been bathing over these past couple of days. FGCU's run has been magical, both for the circumstances (a 15-seed had never won two NCAA Tournament games before and certainly hadn't looked like the vastly superior team twice) and the absurd back story (millionaire with supermodel wife takes up coaching at a school that literally didn't exist when a lot of us began our college careers). We are all lapping this up now, in part because it's so much fun, and in part because we all figure it is going to end on Friday.
And make no mistake: It's probably going to end on Friday. FGCU's upcoming opponent, Florida, is a ridiculous basketball team, one that is balanced in a way that neither Georgetown (69th in offensive efficiency) nor San Diego State (81st in offensive efficiency) were. Billy Donovan's Gators are ruthless on offense and sound on defense, and as we learned in the 2006 Final Four, when Florida took down Cinderella team George Mason with few issues, they can be pretty cold and heartless when they need to be. In the Round of 64 last Friday, Northwestern State played its up-tempo game and hung with the Gators for quite a while (it was 40-36 with 19:00 left), but the Gators ruthlessly pulled away from there (last 19 minutes: Florida 39, NWSU 11). Ken Pomeroy's projections say Florida has a 95 percent chance of winning beating FGCU, with an expected scoring margin of 19 points. That might be conservative.
But let's pretend for a moment that the 5 percent possibility of an FGCU win comes true. Hell, it's not like the Eagles had a 5 percent chance of making the Sweet 16, right?
We wake up Saturday morning in a world where FGCU pulled an upset of the Gators. How did it go down?
1. They stayed loose
A high percentage of this year's NCAA Tournament has been low-scoring and not particularly enjoyable. Sure, there have been plenty of dramatic finishes, but you could skip the first 38 minutes of a given game without missing much. That backdrop has made FGCU's run even more dramatic and exciting than it otherwise might have been (and Cinderella runs are always dramatic and exciting).
That said, FGCU also played some really, really fun basketball. Even as Georgetown was closing the gap on the Eagles in the final couple of minutes, the Eagles stayed loose, made most of their free throws, and advanced. Then, in the Round of 32, they laid waste to San Diego State with a stunning 17-0 run that turned a 54-52 lead (with 11:33 left) into a rout. They throw alley-oops, they launch (and make) three-pointers (13-for-33 against Georgetown and SDSU), and they take chances in passing lanes (13 steals versus SDSU). It is, to say the least, aesthetically pleasing. They have no chance against Florida if they don't play with the same throwing-caution-to-the-wind approach.
On the flipside, Florida has had basically one weakness in 2012-13. The Gators have decimated almost every team with whom they crossed paths this season, but they have played six games decided by single digits ... and lost all six. It is the reason they were only a 3-seed in the NCAA Tournament despite statistical dominance. It doesn't doom them to failure in the NCAAs -- among other things, six games isn't much of a sample size -- but it certainly suggests that, if the game is close in the final minutes and FGCU is playing loose and effective basketball, the edge might turn ever-so-slightly toward the team from Fort Myers.
2. They ran
Florida barely averages 60 possessions per game. The Gators operate at one of the slowest paces in the country, which makes their decimation of most teams -- they beat Minnesota by 14, Ole Miss by 14, Wisconsin by 18, Middle Tennessee by 21, Missouri by 31, and Marquette by 33, and their average win in SEC play was by 24.3 points -- even more impressive and intimidating. They don't need run-outs, and they don't need as many possessions as possible to destroy you. They are clinical.
FGCU, meanwhile, averaged over 70 possessions per game against Georgetown and San Diego State. Georgetown plays as slow as Florida, and San Diego State isn't a lot faster. Generally speaking, an underdog might want to minimize a game's possessions -- with fewer possessions, you need fewer breaks to keep a game close when you're overmatched -- but Florida is just too good in a halfcourt setting. FGCU's only chance is to maximize possessions, give assists master Brett Comer a chance to find players in space, and get Florida playing a style it doesn't want to play.
3. They fought to a draw on the glass
Florida is a good rebounding team (88th in offensive rebounding rate, 57th in defensive rebounding rate), but not an elite one. With Will Yeguete hobbling around on a bum knee, the Gators are even perhaps a little worse than their overall rankings. They still have an extreme advantage over FGCU (131st in offensive rebounding rate, 208th in defensive rebounding rate), of course.
FGCU held its own in offensive rebounding against San Diego State and in defensive rebounding against Georgetown, but plainly speaking, the Eagles aren't going to win a jump-shooting contest versus Florida. And they probably won't win if they can't figure out a way to at least come close to breaking even on the glass. Bigs Eric McKnight and Filip Cvjeticanin are okay on the glass, and Sherwood Brown is actually quite strong in this department for a guard. This trio in particular will have to figure out a way to keep Patric Young and Yeguete off the glass while creating a handful of second chances for themselves.
4. They kept Florida off the free throw line
The only pink marks for Florida on an otherwise green (for "good") Ken Pomeroy scouting report ($) come at the free throw line. The Florida offense ranks just 298th in Free Throw Attempts Per Field Goal attempt (getting to the line) and 218th in Free Throw Percentage. This is a jump-shooting team for the most part, and an absolutely devastating one, but if FGCU were to get into foul trouble and hand even an iffy shooting team like Florida some opportunities for free points, the Eagles won't survive.
FGCU does a good job of minimizing fouls (89th in FTA/FGA); this is one of the few matchup advantages the Eagles have, and they cannot waste it with free points, via second-chance opportunity or anything else.
5. Florida's three-balls rimmed out
Ken Pomeroy says the mark of a good three-point defense is one that doesn't allow you to take them in the first place. FGCU opponents have only made 31.4 percent of their threes this season (56th in the country), but FGCU has allowed these opponents to take a ton; over 38 percent of FGCU opponents' field goal attempts have been of the long-ball variety. Georgetown and San Diego State combined to attempt 50 three-pointers last weekend; they only made 15, of course.
Florida, meanwhile, both takes and makes more three-pointers than most teams. The Gators are 30th in Three-point Attempts Per Field Goal Attempt (41 percent of their shots are from behind the arc), and they are 20th in the country in three-point percentage (38.3 percent). Erik Murphy (46 percent for the season, 4-for-7 last weekend) and Mike Rosario (38 percent for the season, 8-for-13 last weekend) are the deadliest Florida shooters, though Kenny Boynton (33 percent, 3-for-9 last weekend) is the most frequent. They are going to get their looks. And honestly, if FGCU is going to win, those looks have to rim out.
If Florida makes more than 40 percent of its three-pointers, I don't see how FGCU scores enough to keep things close. FGCU will have to shoot with high efficiency (Florida's defense is fifth in the country in Effective Field Goal Percentage), rebound well, and force a ton of turnovers (Florida is 50th in Offensive Turnover Rate) to make the difference. Possible? Sure.
But if these teams played 100 times, and FGCU won five times, I would say Florida shot poorly from long range in four of those five. In Cowboys Stadium, which is approximately the size of Liechtenstein, one could imagine shooters struggling with their depth perception on long balls; for FGCU to win, the Eagles have to knock down shots and hope that Murphy and Rosario never find their range.
Florida is precisely the type of team that should handle a free-wheeling FGCU team with ease. The Gators are too precise, have too many weapons and are probably too good at taking a team with FGCU's approach out of its comfort zone. But a scenario for an FGCU win isn't that difficult to imagine, not with the way Florida has struggled in tight games, and not with the way the crowd at Cowboys Stadium will be rooting for FGCU as if it's an Eagles home game.
Assume that FGCU's run comes to an end on Friday night, but watch the fouls, the three-pointers, the rebounding, and the pace early on. If those things are running in the Eagles' favor, they might have another run in them.
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