Take it from someone who experienced up close the magic and mania of being the lowest-seeded team to reach the Sweet 16: Spending this week in the relative isolation of the single-site tournament in Indianapolis will only help Oral Roberts as it prepares to play Arkansas.
Michael Fly, now the head coach at Florida Gulf Coast, was an assistant on the 2013 “Dunk City” team that became the first No. 15 seed to make it out of the tournament’s first weekend.
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Eight years later, Fly remembered how the sudden celebrity, new fans jumping on the bandwagon and a week’s worth of media hype overwhelmed the staff and players and ultimately caught up to them.
On the court, Oral Roberts is on the same path as FGCU, having upset a No. 2 seed (Ohio State) and a No. 7 (Florida) going into Saturday’s game against a No. 3 in the Razorbacks.
Off the court, and in the cocoon of the tournament setting as a precaution against COVID-19, access to the Golden Eagles will be limited. They will primarily be at their hotel and at practices.
In FGCU’s case, then-coach Andy Enfield and the team stepped into a burning spotlight in Fort Myers, Florida, in the days between the first and second rounds in Philadelphia and the regional in Arlington, Texas.
“I thought that was probably the biggest challenge of that whole situation,” Fly recalled on Monday. “I still remember getting back and there were hundreds of people lining campus. I showed up to work one day and ‘SportsCenter’ was doing a broadcast from the arena, and the ‘Today’ show and ‘Good Morning America’ were there. You couldn’t park anywhere. People were ransacking the book store looking for anything with the FGCU logo.”
Minutes after Oral Roberts’ 81-78 win over the Gators on Sunday, coach Paul Mills said he is glad his team is staying put rather than heading back to Tulsa, Oklahoma, for a few days.
“The controlled environment, as the NCAA has put it, is terrific because we can get away from some of that fanfare that kind of comes your way and people pulling you in a number of different directions,” Mills said.
Because FGCU was a relatively new school and only in its second year of Division I eligibility, almost all media requests were granted. Fly — remember, he was an assistant — said he did more than 20 interviews.
“I can’t imagine what coach Enfield was dealing with while we were trying to win another game,” Fly said.
There really were no limits placed on the players, Fly said, and Sherwood Brown, Chase Fieler, Eric McKnight, Bernard Thompson and Brett Comer were willing interview subjects.
“At this level, going to a Sweet 16 is quite the challenge, and we wanted them to soak it in and enjoy it, but it was hard,” he said. “Everybody was taking media requests left and right, but also trying to prepare to play a really good Florida team.
“I remember we had practice closed to the media and when we opened the doors up you would have thought LeBron and the Heat were here. It was insane.”
Fueling everything was the flashy style of basketball FGCU played. Dunk City became the brand, and the players obliged with Comer lobbing the ball to the rim for his teammates to slam through. They dunked a combined dozen times in the first two tournament games.
“In the two games we won against Georgetown and San Diego State, we were playing the way we played all year,” Fly said. “We had an athletic team and obviously we would throw lobs when we had the opportunity and we took advantage of transition opportunities.”
Things started well enough against Florida in the Sweet 16. FGCU led by 11 points in the first half, and Fly said he remembered thinking that the Eagles were going to win again.
But Florida made a key adjustment — trapping Comer and forcing him into uncharacteristic turnovers — and the Gators went on a 23-2 run spanning the halves to take control and pull away for a 62-50 win.
“When you look back at the film, there were some plays in the Florida game that I thought our guys almost tried to make highlight plays because all they had heard all week is this is the most fun team of all time, Dunk City,” Fly said. “I thought we tried to force some lobs and do some things instead of just trying to win the game because there had been so much hype.”
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Even though Oral Roberts will be able to limit distractions this week, there will be extra attention on the Golden Eagles. That’s OK with Mills, who said his players deserve it and that it’s a good thing for the school.
“I’m glad that the school, with it’s faith-based mission, is going to get attention,” he said. “And so from that perspective, it’s good that sports kind of provides this platform.”
Fly’s message to Oral Roberts’ players: “Don’t believe your own hype, don’t read your press clippings and try to stay as locked in as possible even with everybody around you going crazy going into that next game.”