One of the best matchups in the NCAA tournament so far will happen on Friday at Jerry World when Kansas meets Michigan. Amazingly, it's almost like an undercard to a school named Florida Gulf Coast, which 99 percent of America probably never heard of until last Sunday. From nothing, literally, two decades ago, the 15-seed Eagles shocked the world by beating Georgetown, then doubled down by pulling away from San Diego State. They're the talk of the tournament, for good reason, from irrelevant to America's Team as they get set for the third-seeded but volatile Florida Gators.
Meet Bad Kansas. It shows up a little too often for a No. 1 seed. We saw Bad Kansas in the loss to TCU earlier this year. We saw Bad Kansas in the Jayhawks' first 60 minutes of basketball in the NCAA tournament in Kansas City. Fundamental mistakes, horrible shooting -- Bad Kansas can lose to TCU, can almost lose to 16th-seeded Western Kentucky, can fall behind a North Carolina team shooting 11-of-42 from the field in the first half.
Meet Good Kansas. It finally appeared in the final 20 minutes Sunday night against the Tar Heels. Jeff Withey woke up and morphed into the best defensive big man in the country. The Jayhawks made their first three-pointers of the tournament behind Travis Releford -- who was the only Jayhawk to play well in the first half -- and Naadir Tharpe. They scored 49 points in the half and dominated almost every aspect.
Meet Great Kansas. We haven't seen it much, but the Jayhawks need it to show up against Michigan in the Sweet 16. For Great Kansas to appear, for Kansas to reach its full potential as a national championship contender, it needs its star.
While freshman guard Ben McLemore could be the No. 1 pick in June's NBA draft, he was a nonfactor all weekend. In fact, he was on the bench most of the time when Good Kansas finally showed up against the Tar Heels.
"Ben labored this weekend," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "He's still our leading scorer. We're going to go right back to him. There's not going to be a situation with that."
"… We'll get him right heading into Arlington."
McLemore -- who averages 16.2 points per game -- shot 0-for-9 from the field and missed all six threes he took. He played 24 minutes, his fewest minutes since a blowout win over American in December. His only two field goals in two tournament games were a layup and a dunk against Western Kentucky.
McLemore is only a freshman. He's had his ups and downs all season. But at this point he's what separates Kansas from being able to make that jump to the Final Four, because the Jayhawks cannot count on 9-of-13 shooting from Releford every game, can't count on the opposition shooting 30 percent, no matter how good they are on defense.
Even given good Kansas looked in the second half against North Carolina, which Kansas shows up at the South Regional in Arlington is anybody's guess.
-- Matt Brown
Mitch McGary introduced himself to the world with a thud.
VCU's Briante Weber had been accustomed to harassing opposing ball handlers all season. He was not accustomed to having the tables turned on him while playing defense.
If the pancake screen was some sort of pronouncement of McGary's presence to VCU, the rest of his game in Michigan's blowout win put everyone else in America on alert: On a guard-centric team, the 6-foot-10 freshman McGary may be the key to a Wolverines' Final Four run.
Taking advantage of an undersized Rams team, McGary -- making only his fourth start of the season -- shot 10-of-11 from the field, scored a career-high 21 points and grabbed a career-high 14 rebounds. He also played a career-high 34 minutes, while regular starter Jordan Morgan didn't play a minute.
Make no mistake: A reliable McGary gives Michigan a complete roster, and while that roster is very young, it is also capable of wining a national title.
Reliable is the key word, though. While Saturday afternoon felt like a revelation for Michigan in that their talented recruit made a giant leap forward, let's remember that the matchup was quite favorable. VCU is very good and was coming off a blowout win over Akron, but Michigan presented a poor matchup because, led by Trey Burke, it had the personnel at guard to give VCU's aggressive, undersized defense trouble. To his credit, McGary took advantage and took care of the rest.
The threat of McGary scoring underneath and hitting the boards (and flattening opposing guards) is a difference-maker in itself. The Wolverines rely on the three-point shot a lot, and while they do so effectively, they've been mediocre on the offensive glass. Steadier minutes from McGary helps change that, because he is their best rebounder and ranks eighth nationally in offensive rebounding percentage, according to kenpom.com. Throw in the increased threat of McGary as a scorer underneath, and more space opens up for Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Nik Stauskas to operate on the outside.
McGary will likely not duplicate his numbers moving forward against bigger opponents, but sustaining the threat is all Michigan needs to be even more dangerous the rest of the way. We already knew the Wolverines had Final Four talent, thanks especially to Burke, but a consistent presence down low could make all the difference for a young roster searching for cohesion.
-- Matt Brown
How do you think of Florida basketball? Do you think it a fine second violin to Florida football? Do you think it is a program that once cobbled together three NBA lottery picks a few years back -- Al Horford, Corey Brewer, Joakim Noah -- and became the only repeat national champion of the young century? Do you think it maybe a second-tier national force, an occasional juggernaut?
On Sunday evening in the Frank Erwin Events Center in Austin, it came time to think of Florida with a new term: basketball aristocracy.
Really, it's one thing to pile up three Final Fours and two titles across a decade, but it's another to reappear with three consecutive Sweet Sixteens for the first time in university history. It's one thing to win with overwhelming talent or, for a time, with captivating offense, and it's another to win with very good non-lottery-picks grinding it out on defense.
"When I think of Billy, he's somebody who is good at a lot of things," John Pelphrey, in his second stint as a Florida assistant, said of Billy Donovan, in his 17th season as Florida's CEO.
In the mid-1990s, you could find Donovan in a charmingly smallish office in Huntington, W.Va. (I did.) Having assisted Rick Pitino at Kentucky after playing for Pitino at Providence, he became the nation's youngest head coach at Marshall, where he stayed two seasons. He absolutely had the thorough skills and the monumental hunger. When Lon Kruger left for Illinois in 1996 and Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley needed to repair a program "on life support" -- Foley's words -- Foley went to Huntington.
By the 1999 NCAA Tournament, fun little upstart Florida entered as a No. 6 seed, ready to play Penn in Seattle with a pressing, three-point-shooting team of which Donovan said, "We're going to let it all hang out." It reached the Sweet 16. By the 2000 tournament, Florida reached the national final. By 2005, it had spent five seasons with that vague self-question about whether it could get back.
Now, even after the swell of two national titles (2006-07), Donovan hasn't yet reached age 50 (he'll turn 48 in May). He hasn't lost any oomph. He still can motivate a player like Mike Rosario, who had a lackluster first round on Friday. "I just felt that in the first game I wasn't on edge and coach expects a lot out of me, being a fifth-year senior," Rosario said. "I just felt that coming into that first game, I wasn't doing my job."
Motivated, Rosario dropped 25 points on Minnesota's perfectly fine defense, and with another gauntlet surpassed, Donovan said, "I think it's really hard to get out of the first weekend. It just is. There's so many good teams, I think that the parity of college basketball certainly is a lot different today than it was 25 years ago."
That parity just can't trammel Florida. It just can't halt Florida's third crescendo. It just can't derail aristocracy.
-- Chuck Culpepper
What do you give the millionaire who has everything? How about some things that money cannot buy?
How about a piece of basketball history, like becoming the first coach in history to lead a 15th seed team to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament?
How about the power to transform a Philadelphia arena crowd thick with fans wearing Duke jerseys into a stomping throng of Florida small-school boosters?
How about the one thing that no millionaire can ever have, at least after he makes his millions: a legitimate underdog narrative, a story of defying the odds and defeating the Big Boys that is actually inspiring and totally true?
You have to cross all of those gift ideas off Andy Enfield's list. The man who has it all -- the NBA assistant turned software mogul turned program builder, with a wife who is a former Victoria's Secret model -- really and truly now HAS IT ALL after his Florida Gulf Coast University Eagles upset San Diego State University 81-71 to advance to the Sweet 16.
You are going to read a lot about Enfield the former Celtics assistant, Enfield the entrepreneur, Enfield the former Florida State assistant, Enfield the lucky, lucky husband. All of it is true, and much of it is amazing. If you heard that the youthful, energetic, somewhat brash head coach had a closet full of high-tech crime-fighting battle suits, you would believe it, because Enfield fits the profile.
But none of that is relevant moving forward in the tournament. This is what you need to know as FGCU faces Florida. Enfield appears to coach like a 14-year-old with sweaty hands clutching a game controller, hyperactively jamming his fingers onto the alley-oop and drive-and-dunk combo buttons.
But that chaos is largely an illusion. "What you are seeing now is the result of two years of player development and learning how to run a system," he said after beating San Diego State. His players work on the intricacies of the up-tempo game -- "their decision making, the passing, the floaters, their Eurosteps, their finishes in the lane with both hands," he listed -- as diligently as other teams work on their half-court sets.
The Aztecs played faster on Sunday than Georgetown did on Friday. Frankly, there are people wading through swamps who are faster than Georgetown was on Friday. The Aztecs could match the Eagles' tempo for the first 30 minutes. Jamaal Franklin (20 points, 11 rebounds) has a game based around steals and drives, and countered the Eagles' quickness with his own. The game went back-and-forth until Xavier Thames made a layup to cut the Eagles' lead to 54-52 with 11:02 to play.
Then came a run almost identical to the one the Eagles dropped on the Hoyas. Seven minutes later, the score was 71-52. "They just ran the floor, just like they did last game," said Aztecs guard Chase Tapley, whose 17 points were not enough to stop the onslaught.
You are going to read a lot about Florida Gulf Coast University and its fun-loving players in the next few days. Guard Chris Varidel (11 points off the bench) performs little Riverdance kicks after nailing his three pointers. Sherwood Brown (17 points, eight rebounds, a mini-Ray Lewis impersonation during pregame warm-ups) blows kisses to the crowd and chit-chats with the folks at the scorer's table. "We don't take ourselves too seriously," Enfield said. "We've got a lot of guys who are characters." As for the school, it was "a bunch of trailers around dirt fields" 17 years ago, according to Enfield, and it has only had a Division I basketball program for six years.
But none of that is relevant moving forward. What you need to know is that when an opponent makes a shot, The Eagles push the ball up the court so fast that the defense cannot regroup. When an opponent misses a shot, the Eagles attempt to score in transition. That "system" Enfield has spent two years installing is all about those up-tempo baskets: wingers waiting for lob passes around the basket, trailers waiting to finish, one or two Eagles breaking toward their own basket as soon as an opponent's shot clangs.
And when a run starts, the Eagles push harder. "We're going to be in full attack mode the entire game," said point guard Brett Comer, who had 10 points, 14 assists, and never saw a lob pass he didn't want to attempt. "It's hard when we keep going and going and going at you."
The big teams have noticed. John Thompson III said his Georgetown team became "discombobulated" on defense on Friday. Aztecs coach Steve Fisher said his team lost composure on offense. "I thought we got anxious, gambled a little bit, and that added to them running downhill."
Fisher, it should be noted, called the Eagles "Florida State" at the beginning of his press conference: perhaps a deadpan compliment (Fisher paused as if waiting for a laugh), perhaps an understandable mix-up considering Enfield's coaching background, but maybe a Freudian slip by a coach too stunned to accept that the team he just faced was a small program with zero basketball tradition.
As great a story as Enfield is, as great a story as FGCU is, as likeable as Comer and Brown and their teammates are, this is what matters: the Eagles are fast enough to play with anyone. Their tempo is unlike anything that most big programs have seen in recent years. Their style creates a vicious cycle that causes deadly runs: they make a shot, you miss, they make, you start to hurry, it creates misses and bad defensive positioning to feed their transition game. Next thing you know, Florida Gulf Coast is on a 17-0 run. It has happened to Georgetown, San Diego State, and (early in the season) Miami. It can happen to anyone.
So what do you get the millionaire who has everything? Enfield says he wants the basketball program to raise the profile of the entire university, which he calls "a hidden gem down in Southwest Florida." But a Final Four Cinderella Story is the kind of thing even a king's ransom cannot buy.
Enfield's happy-go-lucky players sound happy to oblige. "Dunk City is coming to Arlington," guard Bernard Thompson (23 points) said. "So everybody get ready."
-- Mike Tanier