PHILADELPHIA -- Having already won over the rest of the country, now comes the hard part for Florida Gulf Coast University.
Winning the state.
That means beating Florida on Friday night in the house that Jerry Jones built in Arlington, Texas. That means knocking off the school that many of them cheered for growing up when Billy Donovan’s Gators — featuring Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer and Al Horford — were winning back-to-back NCAA titles. That means taking out the team many of them dreamed of playing for as kids, only to eventually have to “settle” for this unknown — until this week — school by the beach in Fort Myers.
Talk about living out your fantasy, these Eagles have a chance to make it happen.
“It’s really huge to play against a team actually in our own state,” said FGCU’s best and most charismatic player, guard Sherwood Brown from Orlando. “It feels good to play a team of that caliber.
“They have a lot of good guards. We have good guards. So it should be a really good matchup.’’
In other words, if these Eagles haven’t been fazed yet, busting everyone’s brackets and becoming the first 15th seed to get to the Sweet 16, they won’t be now.
“I know I did, and I’m sure a lot of guys growing up were big Florida fans when they had Horford and Brewer,’’ said sixth man Eddie Murray, who grew up just 20 minutes from the FGCU campus and used to see wild boars and alligators when he would stop by to play basketball. “To play Florida will be an awesome experience.
“But I’m sure when we get to Dallas we’ll treat them like Georgetown and San Diego — like any other game. Just come out ready to play.’’
That’s the gospel their coach Andy Enfield, who reportedly received a $10,000 bonus for guiding his team to this point, has been preaching. From the time they stunned eventual ACC champ Miami in November, through an up-and-down season that included two losses to Lipscomb and others ranging from Stetson to Duke, he continues to tell them how good they are.
So why stop now? ``We’re going to Arlington to try to beat the Gators,’’ said Enfield, who has spent the better part of his career in the shadow of his former supermodel wife, Amanda. “I know a lot of the players on Florida’s team.
“I know Billy Donovan and their coaching staff. I recruited a lot of their players at Florida State [where he was Leonard Hamilton’s assistant five years]. We have a tremendous amount of respect for them.
“But we know they can be beaten.”
And to a man the Eagles believe they can be the ones to beat them. “I feel it shows we’re making a name for ourselves,’’ said point guard Brett Comer, once high school teammates in Winter Park with Austin Rivers and . “We’ve gone against some of the biggest teams in the nation and beaten two of them.
“Hopefully now we can beat a third.”
In the process they’d be making a statement not only to the folks watching throughout the land, but even bigger to the folks back home. ``It feels good for our program us to go the Sweet Sixteen,’’ said Brown, who sensed things would change at FGCU as soon as Enfield arrived two years ago, though he couldn’t have expected this. ``Florida is the team we all at one point wanted to play for, especially when they won back-to-back championships.
``So it feels good to go out and Show Billy Donovan what we have.’’
Will it be enough? By now the Gators have their full attention, trying to make sure these Eagles fly no higher. They, too, know the stakes couldn’t be higher, also depending on what happens with Jim Larrañaga’s Miami Hurricanes.
Forget winning the country. To the victor goes the state.