TAMPA — As March grew more surreal, the figurative streets of Dunk City grew more congested.
By the time Florida Gulf Coast reached the Sweet 16 last spring, everyone from Naples to Nokomis wanted a plot in this 94-foot Fort Myers suburb. From bumper stickers to beverage coasters, Dunk City — hashtag optional — became ubiquitous. Even religious.
Matthew, Mark, Luke and Chase. What else could 6-foot-8 forward Chase Fieler do when an elderly female parishioner at Lubeck Community Baptist Church asked him to autograph her Bible? He signed it.
"That was something that meant a lot to me, on a book that important," he said.
Nine months later, some of the gloss has faded from the darlings of the 2013 NCAA Tournament, who visit USF tonight. The coach (Andy Enfield) bolted for USC, the dreadlocked top scorer (Sherwood Brown) graduated and a low-post force (Eric McKnight) remains suspended.
But Dunk City — a nickname bestowed upon the Eagles for their above-the-rim affinity — still buzzes like a miniature Krzyzewski-ville. Of the four home audiences of 4,000 or more in the program's 11-plus-year history, three have come this year.
The all-time record — 4,633 — was reached Nov. 23 against Ave Maria, an NAIA program. Applications this past fall increased 40 percent, athletic department spokesman Jason MacBain said.
"It's pretty much everywhere," Fieler said.
"If you go into any restaurant, they have coasters or something that has the schedule and 'Dunk City' written on it. … At other sports, you hear them talking about 'Welcome to Dunk City' when you're at, like, a soccer game."
To this point, fulfilling the hype generated by the burgeoning citizenry has been virtually impossible.
Under new coach (and former Kansas assistant) Joe Dooley, the Eagles (5-4) slowly are acclimating to a more methodical offensive style. USF guard Corey Allen characterizes their transition and on-ball defense as "weak."
Six of last year's nine top scorers are back, but McKnight is out for at least three more games, and junior guard Bernard Thompson (14.3 ppg last season) has been limited by a sprained ankle. They already have lost by double figures to FIU and Iona.
"The offense has changed a little bit where we have a little bit more structure," Fieler said.
"Instead of pulling it out every time we don't score a layup off a fastbreak and just setting ball screens, we have a little bit more structure … of running an offense and trying to work for a really good shot rather than the freestyle we kind of did last year."
But when things start clicking, the components are in place for another potential excursion into mid March. Fieler (14.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg) remains solid, and junior Brett Comer (13.8 ppg), who assisted on 66 of FGCU's 148 dunks last year, still runs the floor as well as any point guard in Division I.
"I've started to see in their last few games they're playing together," USF coach Stan Heath said.
"They're playing more where they're running some of the offensive sets Joe brought in from Kansas, but you also see the uptempo style that they've had over the past years."
Which is to say, Dunk City hasn't gone to seed just yet.
Odds are, Thompson (13.6 ppg) will get healthier, McKnight will get eligible and role players such as 6-9 junior Filip Cvjeticanin (20-for-40 from 3-point range) will get more comfortable. Then, another shining moment could be one hot streak away.
"They've got a lot of experience and good players back from that team from last year," Heath said. "They haven't totally gotten it all back together yet, but I'm not so sure they won't have it (tonight) against us."