Shockers, Gulf Coast grab baton from the likes of George Mason, Butler, VCU

Fred Van Vleet and Carl Hall of the

Fred Van Vleet and Carl Hall of the Wichita State Shockers celebrate after defeating the Ohio State Buckeyes 70-66 during the West Regional Final. (March 30, 2013) (Credit: Getty Images)

ARLINGTON, Texas

As Florida Gulf Coast University, the first 15th seed to reach the Sweet 16, took the floor Friday night in Cowboys Stadium against Florida, an FGCU fan held up a sign that read: "All we wanted was a scrimmage."

Priceless.

It referred to the fact that Gators coach Billy Donovan turned down a request for a preseason scrimmage from Eagles coach Andy Enfield. The reason doesn't matter. The point is that, in this most unpredictable college basketball season, FGCU was able to arrange its own date with Florida. It made history, and the Eagles' boisterous run-and-dunk style added loads of fun to March Madness.

The outcome against the Gators wasn't what FGCU wanted, but the Eagles' loss didn't diminish their achievement or sense of humor. Asked what they learned from the experience, playful forward Chase Fieler said, "We learned that we're 'Dunk City' now, not just Fort Myers."

While "Dunk City" captured America's imagination and passion for the underdog during the first two weeks of the tournament, it wasn't an aberration but rather a symbol of a new normal in college basketball. Experts decry the loss of top talent to the NBA after a year or two in college, but the leveling effect has thrown the doors of the party open to a much wider variety of schools.

Florida Gulf Coast was just one of three double-digit seeds to make the Sweet 16 along with 13th-seeded La Salle, a small Catholic school from Philadelphia, and 12th-seeded Oregon, a big Pac-12 football power.

Ninth-seeded Wichita State made it all the way to the Final Four by taking down Big Ten power Ohio State in the West Regional final Saturday night. The Shockers -- an appropriate name in a year of upsets -- last week eliminated top-seeded Gonzaga in the West.

Critics say the West Coast Conference champion Zags didn't merit such a high seed, but they did, after all, rank No. 1 in both polls when the regular season ended because the so-called power schools couldn't hang on to the top spot.

What of the other No. 1 regional seeds? Indiana fell in the Sweet 16 in the East, as did Kansas in the South. Miami, the fifth-ranked team in the tournament, one spot behind Gonzaga, also fell as the No. 2 seed in the East. Only No. 1 overall seed Louisville remains, and there's no guarantee it gets past second-seeded Duke on Sunday in the Midwest Regional final.

Form has taken an unbelievable beating from start to finish this season. Who expected Ivy League champion Harvard to beat third-seeded New Mexico? That upset loss didn't prevent UCLA from hiring Lobos coach Steve Alford on Saturday to restore its former glory.

The trend toward a more democratic opportunity to succeed in the NCAA Tournament has been gaining steam ever since 11th-seeded George Mason reached the Final Four in 2006. Butler was a fifth seed in 2010, and its near-upset of Duke for the national title left an indelible imprint.

Butler returned to the Final Four in 2011 with 11th-seeded Virginia Commonwealth, and now those two schools are regarded as mid-major royalty, along with Gonzaga.

Now, Wichita State becomes the latest mid-major to invade the province of the traditional powers by forcing its way onto the schedule in Atlanta. The rest of the Final Four will have a fairly traditional look with Syracuse joining the winners of Sunday's Florida-Michigan and Louisville-Duke games, but maybe they should prepare to be "Shocked."

As Florida Gulf Coast guard Sherwood Brown said: "The biggest thing we've learned and probably a lot of America has learned is just believe in yourself even when no one else believes in you. You can do anything you set your mind to do."