Excitement is building at “FGCU March Madness Central,” also known as the Hilton Garden Inn in Raleigh-Carey, N.C.
With the team sendoff party just hours away, the Eagles are focusing on the task ahead and savoring the moment as they charge into the national spotlight again. They could make history tonight as the first No. 16 seed to topple a No. 1 as they take on the University of North Carolina in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship first round at 7:20. (Watch on TBS or go to one of our watch parties)
“Right now our mindset is pretty focused on what we have to accomplish,” junior forward Marc-Eddy Norelia said in an interview at the hotel after morning practice. “We’re excited for the opportunity, and we’re going to bring our best effort and play smart.”
Norelia said the Eagles made “the best of our opportunities and were true to ourselves” in their 96-65 trouncing of Fairleigh Dickinson University in the March 15 Dayton game that advanced FGCU to the NCAA’s first round.
Senior forward Filip Cvjeticanin said the play-in game “gave us a little boost.”
“We’re already fired up,” he said. “We don’t really need anything more to fire us up.”
A team member in 2013 when the Eagles memorably stormed the Sweet Sixteen, Cvjeticanin said he tries to help his current teammates put into perspective what they are experiencing on this journey.
“I remember how in 2013 everyone was so happy and excited – it was literally a Cinderella story. Unreal is the word to describe it,” he said. “I’ve been telling the guys, ‘this is an amazing experience, and if we keep working hard we can keep it going.’ ”
Senior guard Julian DeBose, who transferred from Rice University, recalled watching Dunk City on TV while his own team sat out the post-season tournament.
“I can’t imagine now not making the decision to come here. I’ve been working my entire life for this opportunity, and we’ve been working extra hard this year,” he said. “I’ve never been to the NCAA or played North Carolina, so there are some nerves. Once I feel the ball and get one shot up, I’ll be fine.”
DeBose’s picture was on the front page of USA Today with teammates and splashed solo across the Sports section cover under the headline, “No. 16s face 0-124 reality” – a reference to the record of 16-seeds (not) beating No. 1 seeds.
“It’s pretty cool, but I don’t like the headline,” he said. “I’ve never been to the NCAA or played North Carolina, so there are a little nerves but I’m not feeling it now. Once I feel the ball in my hands and get one shot up I’ll be fine.”
In their downtime, the players have been watching other games and resting. Rayjon Tucker had an algebra exam to contend with – there’s a reason we call them student-athletes. While chatting in the hotel lobby, players expressed gratitude for the support they’re receiving from fans and FGCU Athletics boosters at home and on the road.
After Thursday morning’s practice at PNC Arena, they got autographs from Reggie Miller, the 18-year NBA vet best known for 3-pointers and trash talking, who works as a game analyst for TNT.
“He already knew who I was,” said a surprised Norelia.
- See more of Tessa Mortensen’s men’s basketball photos