I firmly believe this statement to be true: The Florida Gulf Coast Eagles' Sweet Sixteen run is the best story in sports this week, and might be among the best in sports this month or this year. Were the Eagles playing any team other than the Florida Gators I love and root for, I would almost assuredly be in their corner.
This FGCU run, on its merits alone, is one of the best by an underdog in a sporting event in a long, long time. No. 15 seeds were 6-106 against No. 2 seeds (a stellar 0.054 winning percentage) entering this NCAA Tournament; not only had none of the six previous No. 15s to slay their giants won in the round of 32, only Coppin State, in 1997, had come within 10 points of its eventual conqueror, losing 82-81 to a Texas team that got blasted in the Sweet Sixteen. Florida Gulf Coast not only has two wins in the only two NCAA Tournament games in program history, but both have come by 10 points.
The last team to start 2-0 in NCAA Tournament play was Florida, back in 1987, when the Gators beat a Jim Valvano-coached N.C. State team and one of Gene Keady's best Purdue teams en route to the Sweet Sixteen. Both of those wins came by 10 points, too (82-70 over N.C. State; 85-66 over Purdue), and though the Gators would later be forced to vacate the victories thanks to Vernon Maxwell, it was the first 2-0 start in the NCAA Tournament's 64-team era.
That Florida team fell to NCAA final-bound Syracuse in the Sweet Sixteen (in a bit of irony, Florida won its first two games in Syracuse, then lost to Syracuse in New Jersey), and Florida went 1-2 in the NCAA Tournament in the next two years. Then, later, the Gators suffered after the NCAA investigation that ended Norm Sloan's tenure in Gainesville, failing to get back to the NCAA Tournament until Lon Kruger's crew made the Sweet Sixteen and the Final Four in 1994.
But I doubt anything could diminish the feeling those 1987 Gators had for the week between their second win and their first loss. And I doubt that Florida Gulf Coast is feeling any differently this week.
These Eagles have soared, quite literally, past their competition. "Dunk City," with Black Magic and Bambi updating Tyga's "Rack City" in the inevitable way after the upset of Georgetown, has nearly 400,000 views on YouTube, and Deadspin's doing the work of FGCU fans in putting together its own highlight reel. The city of Fort Myers has a hashtagged #DunkCity right next to its seal on its website.
These Eagles are the first Cinderellas of the Viral Clickbait Era, with the millions in Twitter's chattering class giving an assist more suited to Snow White by serving as the modern equivalent of the magical woodland creatures making everything right. Last year's No. 15 seeds had just two days in the sun; FGCU will have a week. 2011 had VCU making its run to the Final Four, and Shaka Smart got a ton of hype, but I'll be the first to admit that I had to look up the names Joey Rodriguez, Jamie Skeen, and Bradford Burgess. Butler's Brad Stevens and Gordon Hayward made their names in twin NCAA title game runs in 2010 and 2011, but Matt Howard, Shelvin Mack, Ronald Nored and the rest are largely lost to time.
But those teams didn't make unprecedented Sweet Sixteen runs and didn't throw down like the Eagles do. And "Rack City" wasn't around for remix-by-numbers rap purposes. And Twitter wasn't an essential part of the mainstream media diet, even in 2011, like it is today.
There were no "Fuck the _____s" chants at pep rallies in Richmond or at Hinkle Fieldhouse. Smart and Stevens may be savvy and brand-conscious coaches, but they're not as media-friendly (or publicly confident) as Andy Enfield, nor did either marry a model, and so they didn't reap the benefits of the Viral Clickbait Era that come along with Hot Wife Theory.
There were no human interest stories as conventionally good and dramatic as Brett Comer's tribute to his late father, or rise-from-nothing tales like the one of a school opened in 1997 making a Sweet Sixteen run 16 years later.
This Florida Gulf Coast team seems like the biggest and best story in college basketball both because it is and because the deafening ESPN echo chamber can make anything seem like the biggest and best story in sports from Monday to Friday. (If you don't think ESPN will compensate for not being able to broadcast the NCAA Tournament with wall-to-wall coverage of its storyline this week, chances are you don't think about ESPN much.)
And I wouldn't blame fans or players or coaches one bit for soaking it all in. The Eagles can earn a little more shine with Sweet Sixteen and/or Elite Eight berths, but there's no pressure on them to earn them, just like there was no pressure on them to win their first two games. And even if they do beat Florida and/or Kansas or Michigan, the new win smell will never be as intoxicating as it is right now.
This moment, right now, is the sweet spot of Florida Gulf Coast's 15 minutes of fame. Even if they don't win another NCAA Tournament game for another 10 years, even if Enfield bolts FGCU for a bigger job, even if they get blown out by 31 on Friday — 31 points being the average margin of victory in Florida's two wins over No. 15 seeds in 2011 and 2012 — the Eagles and all of their fans, friends, and family will always have this golden week.
I hope it is the time of their life.