FT. MYERS, Fla. — The Florida Gulf Coast basketball team is in unfamiliar territory — atop the Atlantic Sun Conference standings in February.
The Eagles have never even finished with a winning record in five years in the league.
East Tennessee State coach Murry Bartow thinks they now look like the team to beat. And he’s sure they’ll be sky high for the rematch with his team tonight in Alico Arena.
The Bucs handed the Eagles one of their three conference losses in shocking fashion a month ago, rallying from 19 points down in the second half to win 85-75. Gulf Coast has lost just one game since.
“It looks like we’re walking into a hornets’ nest,” Bartow said Wednesday. “I think Florida Gulf Coast may be the best team in the conference right now. They’ve won four in a row and just beat Stetson by 30. You combine that with the way they lost to us at home, and I think we better play one heckuva good game.”
The Bucs (7-17, 5-6) got perhaps their best win of the season in the first meeting on Jan. 12. Trailing the Eagles 55-36 four minutes into the second half, they charged back in the Dome and won with room to spare.
Lester Wilson scored 13 of his game-high 21 points in the second half to lead the Bucs.
“When you’re down that far and come back the way we did, it was a great win,” said Bartow. “The game just turned. We were really good at both ends, and a lot of guys made big, big plays. We scored more than 50 in the second half and shut them down.”
The Eagles (16-8, 8-3) went home and lost to Lipscomb 87-78 in overtime five nights later. They haven’t lost since, most recently beating Jacksonville by three on the road last Saturday.
Bartow says there’s a lot to like about coach Andy Enfield’s team.
“First, (Bernard) Thompson and (Sherwood) Brown are two of the better players in our league,” said Bartow. “No. 2, they have a lot of guys who can shoot, and since we play a lot of zone, that’s a huge concern. Andy also has a lot of bouncy athletes and a lot of balance; he’s got size, he’s got guards, he’s got wings, he’s got shooters. Defensively they play a lot of things with different wrinkles.
“They’re just not an easy team to play.”
The Bucs haven’t been easy to read either while putting together an enigmatic conference season in which they’ve yet to win consecutive games. They have another chance tonight against a team they’ve beaten nine times out of 11.
Jarvis Jones scored a career-high 36 points — the highest total in the A-Sun this season — as the Bucs edged Lipscomb 90-88 in overtime last Saturday night. They finished the game with five guards on the floor and three players sitting on the bench with five fouls.
Jones’s previous high was 23 points, set two nights earlier in a two-point loss to North Kentucky. He’s now the team leader, at 16.5 ppg.
“Jarvis has always been able to score,” said Bartow. “Obviously we’re not used to him going for 36, but he’s been going for 16, 19, 19. When scorers get on a roll, the basket looks real big to them.
“Jarvis has the ability to catch and shoot, and he’s pretty creative with the ball. He’s one of the few we’ve got that can kind of dribble his way into a shot, and he’s playing with an awful lot of confidence right now.”
Wilson (15.3) is the only other ETSU scorer in double figures, and he’s the team’s top rebounder (5.7). Rashawn Rembert (8.1 ppg) has made a 3-pointer in 19 straight games.
Junior forward Hunter Harris is on the Florida trip with the Bucs. He missed the Lipscomb game to be with his father, who was hospitalized in Nashville.
Brown, the senior guard, leads Florida Gulf Coast in scoring (15.8) and rebounding (6.3). Thompson, a sophomore guard, carries a 13.9 scoring average, and junior forward Chase Fieler is at 11.9.