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FGCU's Sherwood Brown scores against San Diego State on Sunday at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.
FGCU's Sherwood Brown scores against San Diego State on Sunday at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. / Kinfay Moroti/news-press.com

Defensive much?

The 15th-seeded FGCU men’s basketball team will face its fourth consecutive stalwart defense tonight in the NCAA tournament Sweet 16 against No. 3 Florida. How the Gators and recent opponents rank on D:
Game date: opponent, natl’ def. rank, avg. pts allowed, result (all FGCU wins)
March 9: Mercer, 29th, 59.3, 88-75
March 22: Georgetown, 10th, 56.4, 78-68
March 24: San Diego State, 46th, 61.1, 81-71
Tonight: Florida, 3rd, 53.8, –
Note: averages, ranks through Tuesday games

FGCU key facts
RPI: 70
Record: 26-10
Record against top 100 RPI: 3-4
Quality wins: Georgetown (16), Miami (4), San Diego State (36)
Bad losses: at East Tennessee State (270), Lipscomb (236) twice, at Maine (272), at Stetson (214)
Offense efficiency rank: 114 (Kenpom.com)
Defense efficiency rank: 98 (Kenpom.com)
Coach: Andy Enfield
Colors: Old gold, cobalt blue, emerald
Location: Fort Myers
Enrollment: 13,488
NCAA record: 2-0 (first appearance)

Florida key facts
RPI: 10
Record: 28-7
Record against top 100 RPI: 18-7
Quality wins: Air Force (82), Alabama (63), Arizona (14), Marquette (11), Minnesota (29), Missouri (41), Ole Miss (44), Wisconsin (30)
Bad losses: None
Offense efficiency rank: 3 (Kenpom.com)
Defense efficiency rank: 2 (Kenpom.com)
Coach: Billy Donovan
»Colors: Blue, orange
Location: Gainesville
Enrollment: 49,589
NCAA record: 35-15 (17th appearance)

More

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Get in-depth coverage as FGCU gets ready to take on Florida on Friday in the South Regional semifinals at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

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Listening to two of his players — his first two recruits, in fact — speak of team members’ genuine love for one another after the biggest win thus far in his young head-coaching career, Andy Enfield looked a touch glassy-eyed, although severe exhaustion might have been to blame.

“The only water I had was the water they threw on me when I got in the locker room,” the second-year FGCU coach said Sunday after his team became the first 15-seed in NCAA tournament history to advance to the Sweet 16. “I haven’t cried yet. I might cry tomorrow. But it’s just a great feeling.”

For all the sizable hurdles they’ve already flown over, the Eagles (26-10) tackle perhaps their biggest yet tonight against No. 3 Florida (28-7) in 42,000-seat Cowboys Stadium outside Dallas.

The Gators’ defense, ranked third in the country with only 53.8 points allowed per game, is the fourth consecutive stalwart unit FGCU’s offense will face, but it might be the toughest.

FGCU already beat top-seeded Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament host Mercer on March 9, winning 88-75 to finish nearly 30 points above the Bears’ average allowed output.

In last Friday’s 78-68 win over No. 2 Georgetown, FGCU pushed the Hoyas 21.6 points past their average defensive allowance to become only the seventh 15-seed ever to win an NCAA tournament game.

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And Sunday, the Eagles went 19.9 points beyond San Diego State’s defensive standard to add their name to the all-time pantheon of most-memorable March Madness moments.

Enfield called Florida’s defense and talent level “tremendous.” But he has unhappy, personal knowledge that what FGCU is trying to accomplish is realistic.

Two years ago, in his last game as an assistant to Leonard Hamilton at Florida State, the 10th seeded Seminoles lost to No. 11 seed Virginia Commonwealth, then of the Colonial Athletic Association, 72-71 in overtime.

“We understand that the mid-major can win a (Sweet 16) game,” Enfield said. “We know they can be beaten, but we also have an unbelievable amount of respect for them. They have one of the best programs and have the success that all of us want to have one day.”

Program history hasn’t stopped FGCU yet, though, in part due to the kinds of emotions guards Brett Comer and Bernard Thompson were expressing after Sunday’s win over San Diego State.

All living in the same building, the 14-player FGCU squad — which travels only 12 with two transfers ineligible this year – boasts of the kind of closeness that squads at all levels of sport desperately strive for but often don’t attain, lip-service notwithstanding.

“We’re brothers,” Thompson said. “There’s really not much to be said.”

A season ago, FGCU didn’t have the chemistry of this year’s team, Comer said. But as the Eagles have rapidly leapt two stair-steps at a time for two seasons now, uncanny mutual awareness has helped them soar to ever-loftier heights. It’s no small part of their success, Comer said.

“We are like best friends,” said the flashy point guard now being called one of the best in the country. “When you have that chemistry off the court, it translates to on the court.”

Sitting next to his guys as they spoke, Enfield smiled gently with slightly reddened eyes.

FGCU’s whirlwind romance with fans across the nation has left the team little time to rest, but darn if it didn’t look like a lump was in Enfield’s throat, something fatigue just couldn’t explain. Together, this family believes it can do anything.

“I’m so proud of these players, what they’ve been through for the last two years,” Enfield said. “It really speaks volumes. No tears yet, but maybe in the future.”

— Follow Soffian on Twitter @NewsPressSeth

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