Florida Gulf Coast rolls in First Four, again eyes a shot at NCAA tournament history

DAYTON, Ohio -- The “Dunk City” moniker didn’t really fit this time.

But Florida Gulf Coast found plenty of other ways to rack up points in its return to the NCAA tournament, and it once again looks like a team that isn’t content to simply be in the field.

The Eagles are a few years removed from their famous postseason run in 2013, they have a new coach on the sideline in Joe Dooley and there’s only one holdover in the rotation from the first No. 15 seed in history to advance to the Sweet 16. A victory in the First Four pales in comparison to those historic upsets, but Florida Gulf Coast proved once again that it can be a dangerous opponent in the postseason on Tuesday night at UD Arena by cruising 96-65 past Fairleigh Dickinson to set up a matchup with North Carolina, the No. 1 seed in the East Region.

The degree of difficulty is certainly going to go up against the Tar Heels, and Florida Gulf Coast showed a few weaknesses on the free-throw line and against full-court pressure that could be a problem against a top seed with that much firepower. If the Eagles had shot better than 59 percent from the charity stripe, which was below even their regular-season mark of 65 percent, and cut down on their 18 turnovers, an already lopsided game might have been over at halftime.

But the same strengths that overpowered the Knights could put North Carolina at least on notice on Thursday.

Florida Gulf Coast is an intriguing team thanks to its abundance of athleticism, an aggressive defense that is more than willing to crash the boards and an ability to score with regularity inside the paint. But it’s the versatility of forward Marc Eddy Norelia that made life miserable for Fairleigh Dickinson and will likely be the key if the Eagles are going to make any more history.

The 6-foot-8 forward was able to use his size to finish at the rim and showed a feathery touch from the elbow to keep defenders off-balance while knocking down his first seven field goal attempts, as the Eagles maintained a double-digit lead seemingly from start to finish. The Tar Heels will have better athletes to throw at Norelia and keep him from getting just about whatever shot he wants from the floor, and Power Five programs Texas A&M and Florida were both able to hold him in check with a combined 10 points in those two early-season matchups. But Norelia has been flourishing down the stretch and finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds before grabbing some rest late in the blowout of the Knights, which could prove invaluable against the Tar Heels considering just how much the Florida Gulf Coast offense flows through him.

That attack didn’t electrify the crowd with a bunch of dunks in the return to the Big Dance. But that hardly mattered to this revamped version of the Eagles.