ORLANDO, Fla. Quick — who’s the first-round NCAA Tournament underdog commonly known by four letters playing a major conference Sunshine State school Thursday at Amway Center?
If you said FGCU, you’re only half-right.
ETSU — or East Tennessee State University — shares more than a few similarities with Florida Gulf Coast University. Each is a public school with an enrollment of around 14,000 students. Each stands in the shadows of more prominent colleges in its state.
And each has ties to the Atlantic Sun Conference. Earlier this month, FGCU won its third A-Sun tourney since joining the conference in 2007, setting up its matchup with Florida State tonight. ETSU, which lost Thursday afternoon to Florida, represented the A-Sun in the NCAA Tournament in 2009 and 2010 before leaving in 2014.
Now, ETSU is in the Southern Conference, having come away with that league’s tournament title last week. The impetus for their move was the return of the school’s football program after a 12-year hiatus.
FGCU has never had football and has no current plans to start a team. And that’s one reason why the school isn’t thinking about leaving the A-Sun anytime soon, athletics director Ken Kavanagh said.
“You have to be realistic about our location, where we are, and the fact that football’s a big ingredient in decisions for conferences,” Kavanagh said. “Our goal is to just continue to make the A-Sun better.”
Outgoing FGCU president Wilson Bradshaw said more than a year ago that football was a matter of when, not if, for the Eagles. The last four colleges where incoming president Michael Martin was employed had football teams, but it’s unclear how he feels about starting one at his latest institution.
As mad as March can get, football is still the prime mover in college athletics. If FGCU had a football team, it would likely be easier for the school to get into a more prominent conference.
The Southern Conference won’t be confused with the powerhouse Southeastern Conference anytime soon, but the Southern has a rich history. Its conference tournament is the oldest in college basketball, having begun in 1921.
The Atlantic Sun wasn’t founded until 1978, when it was known as the Trans America Athletic Conference.
And while the difference was largely a wash for this year’s NCAA seeding committee, which gave ETSU at 13 seed and FGCU a 14, that hasn’t always been the case.
FGCU entered the tournament with 20 wins last year but wound up with a 16 seed. The Eagles had to oust Fairleigh Dickinson in a play-in game before moving on to the round of 64.
The last time a Southern Conference team got a 16 seed was 2001.
But Kavanagh is satisfied to have the Eagles right where they are, and he’s optimistic the best days are ahead for the A-Sun.
“We’ve got some young institutions just like ourselves that are building their resources, and hopefully the league will only get better,” Kavanagh said. “… Our opportunity is with the A-Sun and we look to not only continue to be successful in it, but to have other teams make us be hard-pressed to win, and then we’re all better off.”