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Florida Gulf Coast University busting brackets all the way to Sweet 16

Florida Gulf Coast players celebrate with their coach Andy Enfield in the team's locker room after winning a third-round game against San Diego State in the NCAA college basketball tournament, Sunday, March 24, 2013, in Philadelphia. Florida Gulf Coast won 81-71.

Scott McIntyre/AP

They never expected this. Students usually choose to attend Florida Gulf Coast University for the campus's peaceful isolation and environmental splendour, but now FGCU has become an overnight sensation. And Andy Enfield, the coach of the university's basketball team, is in such high media demand that his wife, a former model photographed by Vogue, Elle and Victoria's Secret, is "keeping me humble."

Mr. Enfield, millionaire Wall Street entrepreneur turned college coach, got 90 minutes of sleep before his three young children roused him on Monday morning. The night before, the Eagles had qualified for the NCAA tournament's third round as a lowly No. 15 seed in their region – the first time that has ever happened.

The coach received more than 1,000 e-mails and texts overnight. The school's dynamic kiss-blowing guard Sherwood Brown got 1,000 friends requests on Facebook, and cashiers at the bookstore dealt with hour-long lineups for caps and T-shirts. The previously anonymous university with an enrolment of 13,615 received hundreds of instant applications, and students lined up an hour early for a pep rally. In the eye of the storm is a 42-year-old coach still fit enough to play.

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"My wife keeps me grounded – she keeps saying, 'It's not about you as a coach, Andy. It's about the players and the school,'" he said Monday, standing in the school's pristine, blue-seated gymnasium. "It's not just me … the soccer coach, the golf coach, they're hearing from people they haven't heard from in 10, 15, 20 years and those people are saying, 'Oh, so that's where you work.'"

A nation obsessed with office pools now knows all about FGCU too, their filled-in tournament brackets spoiled by an obscure team that's defeated Georgetown and San Diego State in the first two rounds to sweep into the Sweet Sixteen.

Low seeds in the NCAA tournament are known traditionally as Cinderellas, and Mr. Enfield's story is the stuff of fairy tale dreams. He graduated from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore with a MBA in finance and bought into a friend's software company, TractManager, opting out when valuation reached approximately $100-million, according to reports.

He met Amanda Marcum Enfield by providing a ride to a college basketball game. They dined post-game at the only restaurant open, a Taco Bell – "bought her a nice burrito," he has said – and got engaged six months later.

As an undergraduate playing for Johns Hopkins basketball team in the early 1990s, he compiled a 92.5-per-cent free-throw shooting percentage, still an NCAA record.

Flush from his Wall Street venture, Mr. Enfield decided to get into coaching. He'd made an instructional video on the art of shooting, and leveraged that into instructional positions with Boston and Milwaukee in the NBA before becoming an assistant at Florida State, a year after his marriage.

After five seasons there, on March 31, 2011, he accepted the FGCU job, in the unheralded Atlantic Sun Conference.

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His unshackled, fun-loving Eagles (Twitter handle: @FGCUdirtybirds) are next scheduled to meet the University of Florida, their in-state gargantuan brother, a team that wouldn't deign to grant Mr. Enfield and his upstarts a preseason scrimmage, let alone a regular-season game.

"Kind of ironic," Mr. Enfield said on Monday, as he met a small band of local media in the school's gymnasium.

On FGCU's campus in southwestern Florida, first-year engineering students Carly Barto and Kenny Fessel wore shorts and T-shirts as they skateboarded from residence to class. The 760-acre campus is organized around a large traffic circle, with clusters of almond-stuccoed buildings separated by swampy mangroves of cypress trees, pine flatwoods and palms. A sign on an entry road warns, "Wild animal crossing." Monday, the alligators, cougars and gopher tortoises had competition from TV satellite trucks and radio station vans.

"You get into the discipline of not having much to do except study; everybody clears out of here on Thursdays," Ms. Barto said. On Sunday night, while travelling back to campus from the Florida Keys, she'd receive a text from her dad every time FGCU – as the school prefers to be known – scored a basket against San Diego State. She arrived in the nick of time to catch the end of the television coverage from Philadelphia, and when the Eagles finished off a victory that their coach had predicted with a flat confidence, the campus "erupted," she said. "Honking horns, shouts of victory, just kind of crazy."

Recruiting athletic talent to an anonymous school in a state dominated by Miami, Florida and Florida State universities is a tough task, explaining why three of the 14 players come from Europe – Christophe Varidel of Switzerland, Filip Cvjeticanin of Croatia, and Alexander Blessig of Germany. They find themselves in a tournament with few parallels in the world of sport, a three-week, nationally televised extravaganza. FGCU's South Region game with Florida on Friday will be staged at the 80,000-seat, $1.15-billion stadium owned by the Dallas Cowboys of the National Football League.

"I really don't think there is any point trying to explain any of this to my friends in Switzerland," said Mr. Varidel, a junior guard who came off the bench to hit three of five three-pointers and score 11 points on Sunday. "It is beyond their understanding."

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"It is hard to explain it to people in Europe," Mr. Cvjeticanin said Monday. "But the feeling is great. We are having so much fun."

The Eagles have captured the country's imagination during a period when coaches so tightly script the action, the sport is too often deprived of its entertaining spontaneity. Rather than grind down the shot clock laboriously in set plays, Mr. Enfield challenges his team to get off a shot in the first 10 to 15 seconds of possession. They play without fear of making mistakes, trying to force turnovers to trigger the fast break, attacking the basket and setting loose point guard Brett Comer to lob "alley-oop" passes to forward Eric McKnight for spectacular dunks.

"When you use speed and athleticism, the opponent doesn't know what's coming," Mr. Enfield explained.

Nor could the school's freshmen have imagined, when they filled out applications a year ago, that they'd be cramming a gym on a Monday night, waving their arms, dancing, chanting and cheering their players on into the Sweet 16.

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