Basketball Fever

Hoop Dreams at FGCU

by Jeff Berlinicke

ANDY ENFIELD REMEMBERS pacing the sideline as last season started slipping away. His Florida Gulf Coast men’s basketball team was only a half away from an improbable trip to the Big Dance – the NCAA Basketball Tournament. The Eagles weren’t even supposed to come that close. They entered the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament with a losing record and were flying way under the radar, but they picked the perfect time to go on a roll that was the biggest in the short history of Division I basketball at FGCU.

The Eagles pulled off upset wins over South Carolina Upstate and Mercer to reach the finals against perennial conference power Belmont. The Eagles led at the half before simply running out of gas in an 83-69 loss. But Enfield remembers putting everything in perspective during those final minutes.

“Belmont was a better team than we were,’’ Enfield said as the Eagles began practice for the 2012-2013 season. We had that lead at the half, but what I took away was the extreme confidence and excitement we played with. Now we know how to play at the next level. We just wore down.’’

The off-season was an interesting one for FGCU. Not only did the Eagles come up with some new recruits that should be able to lift them to the next level, but they also got rid of something that blocked their path to The Dance last season: Belmont. Belmont moved to the Ohio Valley Conference this season after reigning as one of the top teams in the Atlantic Sun Conference. Mercer was a regular season co-runner-up with Belmont last year and is favored by most to win it all this season, but most prognosticators have FGCU picked for second or third.

Enfield said that means that people are starting to notice his program, one that can easily be obscured by the state’s big boys such as Florida, Florida State, UCF, USF, Miami, and several other established programs.

The Eagles are now not only a team to be reckoned with in the state recruiting wars – they have gone national and international to stock the roster. Only five players on the Eagles roster hail from Florida, while the other nine are from other states, along with three more from Europe.

“We have a great chance to recruit anywhere,’’ Enfield said. “People are recognizing us as a rising mid-major program and it’s starting to pay off. A lot of people got to notice us last year during the tournament.’’

The Eagles are going to be young, but have two solid seniors in swingman Sherwood Brown and Eddie Murray. Murray is the only local kid on the team, having played his prep ball at Bishop Verot. Brown led the team in scoring last year, and with Murray and junior Chase Fieler at forward, the entire starting lineup is back. Two of the stars of last year’s team were freshman: Brett Comer led the conference in assists and Bernard Thompson was a mid-major All America. This year, though, depth is also a key. Filip Cvjeticanin and Christophe Varidel are snipers from three-point land off the bench.

Getting off to a quick start is always key to a team’s success, but it isn’t easy when you are stuck in the purgatory of the mid-majors. The Eagles will host Miami early in the season, but it isn’t easy luring any big-name opponents for a home game, so FGCU will hit the road against such powers as Duke, St. John’s, Iowa State and recent Final Four surprise Virginia Commonwealth.

FGCU women’s coach Karl Smesko has the same dilemma when it comes to trying to set up a home game against one of the traditional powers. Smesko has built the FGCU program from the ground up, moving quickly from NAIA status to Division II and finally to Division I in what is the fastest move in NCAA history.

The Eagles went 29-3 last season and have won the Atlantic Sun Conference each of the past two seasons, and once again, they might have to overcome some bumps in the road before getting into conference play. They start early with games against South Carolina, South Florida, Virginia Tech, Central Florida, and LSU soon after their opener at home against Warner.

The biggest challenge for Smesko is to mix his core of experienced players with a strong core of newcomers.

“This is a different situation than we have ever been in,’’ Smesko said. “We had a great season last year with five seniors and now we have seven freshmen, so we’ll have a whole new look. We have a long way to go, but they have been mixing together well so far.’’

There are still two seniors left from last year. Sarah Hansen led the Eagles in scoring and earned all-conference honors last season. Senior point guard Brittany Kennedy runs the offense, and she’ll have plenty of options when it comes to dishing out assists this year. It’s a matter of who gets the minutes.

The Eagles have made a reputation for firing 3-pointers and they have a returning weapon this year in Lerrin Cook. Smesko asked her to redshirt [withdraw from the team to add a year to her eligibility] last season, but she can hit from everywhere. Sophomore Anthi Chatzigiakoumi didn’t play much as a freshman last season, but she played a big role in helping the U-20 Greek National team win the European Championship over the summer.

The Eagles took a hit when Whitney Knight, who earned All-Sun All-Freshman honors last year, was lost for the season, injuring a knee during early workouts, but there are plenty of options.

Smesko has no grand illusions about FGCU being a major power at the national level, but the Eagles did qualify for the first NCAA Tournament bid last year and gave St. Bonaventure a run before failing by seven points in the first-ever tournament game. Smesko said he is happy with where the program is right now.

“We are going to compete regularly,’’ Smesko said. “I think we are happy to be one of the best mid-major programs anywhere. We can recruit here. We have a great campus, great facilities, and we have the beach. A lot of kids want to play here and that’s exciting.’’ •

FGCU Men's Basketball Coach

FGCU Women's Basketball Coach
Florida Gulf Coast University
Alico Arena
10501 FGCU Blvd
Fort Myers

Basketball – Men

Nov 13: vs Miami
Nov 15: vs Ave Maria
Nov 21: vs Alcorn State
Nov 22: vs Toledo
Dec 1: vs Loyola Maryland
Dec 13: vs FIU
Dec 18: vs Southeastern
Jan 5: vs Jacksonville
Jan 7: vs North Florida
Jan 17: vs Lipscomb
Jan 19: vs Northern Kentucky
Jan 25: vs Stetson
Feb 7: vs ETSU
Feb 9: vs USC Upstate
Feb 28: vs Mercer
Mar 2: vs Kennesaw State

all games 7pm except:
* 2pm, ** 7:30pm, *** 5:15pm

Basketball – Women

Nov 10: vs Warner
Nov 14: vs FIU
Dec 1: vs Maine
Dec 22: vs UCF
Dec 28: vs LSU
Jan 5: vs Jacksonville
Jan 7: vs UNF
Jan 19: vs Northern Kentucky
Jan 21: vs Lipscomb
Jan 26: vs Stetson
Feb 9: vs USC Upstate
Feb 11: vs ETSU
Feb 28: vs Mercer
Mar 2: vs Kennesaw State

all games 7pm except:
* 4:45pm, ** 4:15pm,
*** 5:15p, **** 7:30pm

from the November-December 2012 issue