|Only seven players traveled with Florida Gulf Coast on their trip to the Bahamas. (Florida Gulf Coast Athletics)|
That's how close Florida Gulf Coast was to the NCAA tournament last season. After a sixth-place finish in the regular season, the Eagles made a tremendous run to the Atlantic Sun championship game – and held a three-point lead at halftime against top-seeded Belmont. In fact, the 15-17 Eagles were up by as many as 13 points in the first half.
Belmont's 17-5 run in the second half put the game – and the Big Dance – out of reach for FGCU.
“We were close, we just weren't good enough,” coach Andy Enfield said. “I remind them when I have to – you just weren't good enough. Belmont deserved it.”
The Eagles are hoping to use the loss – and nine defeats by six points or fewer – as a motivational tool for this season.
“We showed early on, if we play hard, we can compete with anyone we play,” Enfield said. “It gave our players confidence going into the offseason, and it gave them a sense of pride and excitement for the future.”
Belmont is out of the league now, but Mercer and USC Upstate are back. With that said, Florida Gulf Coast returns nearly everyone and has a shot to chase the automatic bid. A solid performance in the Bahamas cemented that thought for the Eagles.
“We're optimistic that we can compete and have a chance to win our league,” Enfield said.
What Enfield learned: “I was impressed with the individual improvement from a skill perspective. Guys were doing things that they weren't able to do at the end of last season. So they've increased their skill set since the end of last season, as individuals. From a team standpoint, we were able to push the basketball, get open shots and do a better job of creating for each other. We were able to score a lot of points. We got a lot of wide-open 3s, getting in the lane and making plays for teammates.”
Who stood out: “Brett Comer was our starting point guard last year, and was second nationally in assists for a freshman. Also led the Atlantic Sun in assists. His perimeter shooting has improved. He's a pass-first type of guy, but he had 34 poitns in our first game.”
Biggest concern: “We built this team around long, athletic bodies; we're athletic and we're fast. We can shoot the ball. But we're not an overly physical team, meaning the body types of our guys are very similar. We have no 250-260 pound interior players, so that concerns me against specific teams we play. We just have to compensate from a rebounding standpoint.”
- Only seven players went on the trip. Eric McKnight was suspended for a violation of team rules; two transfers couldn't go; Christophe Varidel was back in Switzerland recovering from injury; and freshman Leonard Livingston was not cleared in time.
- McKnight should contribute during the season, though. The Iowa State transfer should be an immediate impact player on the defensive end. “He has long arms, a 7-foot-2 wingspan, he's quick off his feet and he changes shots,” Enfield said. “He runs the floor on offense, and he's developed a nice post game. We're expecting big things from him.”
- Florida Gulf Coast picked up two high-major transfers in the offseason, in Jamail Jones (Marquette) and Nate Hicks (Georgia Tech). Neither can play this year, but should make an impact down the road. “We're just trying to do the best job we can recruiting and developing,” Enfield said. “We're trying to build something.”
- FGCU has plenty of perimeter firepower. In addition to Comer, sophomore Bernard Thompson and senior Sherwood Brown are also back. Varidel is a lights-out shooter when healthy. The lone loss was Dante Holmes, who is now at Odessa JC.
- Enfield pointed to Chase Fieler and Filip Czjeticanin as guys who improved during the offseason. Fieler was more aggressive attacking the basket for finishes, while 6-foot-9 shooter Czjeticanin made an effort to put the ball on the floor more consistently.