Sometime before Florida and Florida Gulf Coast tip off Friday night, before the next episode of the Eagles’ enthralling aerial show, Kyle O’Quinn will send a text message to Kenny Boynton.
The message, sent by O’Quinn, one of the stars of last year’s N.C.A.A. tournament, to Boynton, the senior leader of the Gators, will be equal parts ribbing and reprisal — a good-natured jab at a friend that O’Quinn hopes will act as a small form of payback.
“I’m going to text him and wish him good luck,” O’Quinn said. “But he knows what kind of good luck that is.
“I would love for them to knock Florida off.”
O’Quinn starred during the first weekend of last year’s tournament, with 26 points and 14 rebounds in No. 15 Norfolk State’s upset of second-seeded Missouri and a memorable quip about picking against his own team in a bracket. The Spartans were part of history that day, the first Friday of tournament play, as another No. 15 seed, Lehigh, knocked off Duke hours later.
It was the first time that a pair of No. 15 seeds won in the same tournament. And though neither made the field this year, both teams are fixated on Florida Gulf Coast, the newest member of the 15 fraternity, which has surged all the way to the Round of 16.
“I know in our game against Duke there were quite a few dunks, but the dunks that they’re putting out there are pretty spectacular,” Lehigh Coach Brett Reed said. “They have demonstrated that they are good enough to compete with anybody on a national stage.”
Before the Eagles took the national stage, alley-ooping their way past No. 2 seed Georgetown and running away from seventh-seeded San Diego State, they were a seven-man team in a tiny gym in the Bahamas that caught the eye of Anthony Evans, the Norfolk State coach.
The Eagles were without five players during that trip — including two that averaged more than 15 minutes per game this season — but Evans said their talent was evident. They could shoot, they could score and they were athletic.
Seven months later, Evans found himself watching both of the Eagles’ N.C.A.A. tournament games from his home in Chesapeake, Va., his cellphone lighting up constantly with messages from family and friends.
“This is reminiscent of last year,” said Evans, whose team lost to Florida in the tournament. “It brought back great memories. To see them advance to the Sweet 16 was really, really a great feeling.”
The feeling is a blend of happiness for a fellow underdog and mild jealousy. Norfolk State lost to Florida in the Round of 32, and Lehigh fell short against Xavier, leaving coaches and players to live vicariously through the Eagles this season.
It is why O’Quinn, now with the Orlando Magic, followed along on his phone during each of the Florida Gulf Coast wins while he was on the road. It is why Gabe Knutson, a forward for Lehigh, went to the Florida Gulf Coast Web site to learn more about the program few people had heard of before last week. It is why Reed began a telephone conversation with a reporter by saying: “We wish we were the ones in the tournament. You can quote me on that.” And it is why Stephen Ott, one of Reed’s assistants, cannot stop talking about Florida Gulf Coast whenever he is around his players.
The Eagles’ wings, which spread wider by the day, now support the six other 15 seeds that soared in the tournament but never this high.
“I think it’s awesome,” Knutson said. “They’re winning, and they’re making strong plays. It’s not really getting lucky. They’re a really athletic team, and it shows. Some of those alley-oops, it’s just like, ‘Wow.’ They deserve to be there.
“They’re paving a new path right now.”
That path continues Friday night in Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Tex., against No. 3 Florida, the team that cut short Norfolk State’s dream a season ago. O’Quinn worked out in Las Vegas last summer with Boynton, a sharpshooting guard, and the two became friends.
Friday, though, is the closest chance O’Quinn will have at some sort of redemption. A win by Florida Gulf Coast, one that would result in a trip to the Round of 8, is a win for Norfolk State, a win for Leigh, a win for all the No. 15 seeds that came close but faltered.
So when O’Quinn types that text message, the one that sarcastically wishes Boynton good luck, his allegiance will be clear. And he will not be alone.
“I’m cheering for them,” Knutson said of the Eagles. “You have to look out for the fellow 15s.”
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