FORT MYERS, Fla. — There’s a sense in some basketball quarters this season that Florida Gulf Coast is underachieving.
Maybe that’s what happens when an anonymous mid-major makes a big splash at the NCAA tournament, returns several key players and simply doesn’t pick up where it left off.
The Eagles, in fact, are tied for the Atlantic Sun Conference lead at 5-1 as they prepare to host East Tennessee State tonight at Alico Arena. They’ve had some surprising losses — Florida International, Iona, Radford — and no signature wins on their way to an 11-8 overall record.
So whatever happened to Dunk City? Perhaps nothing, says ETSU coach Murry Bartow.
“Their personnel is very similar — Comer, Thompson, Feiler, McKnight,” said Bartow. “They have most of the same pieces, so they still have the potential to be very good.
“You have to look at three things so far this season: One, they have a new coach. Two, they lost their best player. And three, McKnight wasn’t eligible first semester. That’s a combination for some of their losses.”
There was nothing this time last year to suggest the Eagles were headed on an amazing journey that would captivate much of the basketball public come March.
They caught fire at the A-Sun tournament in Macon, Ga., defeating Mercer in the final. And they just kept on going, mowing through Georgetown, a 2-seed, and San Diego State, a 7, before the Gators up in Gainesville finally put the brakes on the run in the Sweet Sixteen.
Some among the Eagles’ conference brethren were bemused by the turn of events. Was this the same bunch that, for examle, blew a 19-point lead in the second half at ETSU and lost to a 10-win team?
“Some people were happy for them, but not me,” said Hunter Harris, the Bucs’ forward. “All I could think of was that we beat that team. Seeing them out there celebrating just left a bad taste in my mouth.”
It wasn’t just the fact that the Eagles won. It was how they won — with behind-the-back passes, audacious dunks and gleeful celebrations. The national following grew quickly.
The storyline was so compelling that coach Andy Enfield and his much-discussed model wife are now residents of Los Angeles, him having taken the Southern Cal job. The FGCU reins were passed to Joe Dooley, an assistant to Bill Self at Kansas for the last decade, who became only the third head coach in the school’s rather brief basketball history.
The Eagles’ other significant loss was Sherwood Brown, the senior forward with the braids who was the heart and soul of that NCAA run. Still, they will defend their conference crown with flashy point guard Brett Comer, guard Bernard Thompson and forwards Chase Fieler and Eric McKnight. They have plenty of talent to repeat, and the rest of the league knows it.
The Bucs certainly know they have their work cut out tonight. They’ve lost here on their last two visits, and it was 67-43 a year ago as Comer and the Eagles piled up the highlights as payback for that earlier loss in Johnson City.
“There’s no question they’re one of the more talented teams in our league,” said Bartow. “They’re very good on their home floor and we’re coming off a loss ... there aren’t a lot of things in our favor.”
The Bucs were beaten 64-58 Thursday night at Stetson. The Hatters, who came into the game with a 3-14 record, scored the last six points to ensure at least a season split with the Bucs for the sixth straight year.
“We made mistakes in the zone that hurt us,” said Bartow, “but the biggest detriment was missing a lot of shots right at the rim. When you miss layups, it starts transition the other way.
“It came down to the last few minutes, and we couldn’t pull it out.”
The Bucs will be fortunate to be in that position again tonight.