The Florida Gulf Coast Eagles' Improbable Success: A Model For Building A Program From Scratch

While most teams warm up by shooting layups, the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles comes out shooting threes.

And they keep shooting threes.

And they keep making threes.

“We kind of view the three as an easy shot,” said senior guard Courtney Chihil. “It’s an easy shot and coach [Karl Smesko] has taught us the proper form to shoot it and he has confidence in us that if we get open, we’re going to knock it down.

“We have the green light to shoot.”

After watching them win the Atlantic Sun tournament to earn their first-ever automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, nobody would want to face a team that shoots like that.

They shoot threes with such precision that it’s almost surprising when their threes don’t go in. This year, they led the nation in three pointers made at 10.8 per game and they have five players in their rotation (10 minutes per game or more) that shoot at least 36% from the three point line: Sarah Hansen at 36%, Kelsey Jacobsen at 36% who also happens to be the nation’s active leader in three pointers made with 329, Courtney Chihil at 37%, Eglah Griffin at 46% and Amber Rechis who shoots a staggering 57%.

In the Atlantic Sun Tournament final, 33 of their 67 points came from three pointers.

The Stetson Hatters had finally whittled the lead down to 12 by halftime and had seemingly gained some momentum. But right as the second half began, FGCU hit a three to take the lead to 15, then another to take it to 18 and, hence, game over.

It happened that quickly.

“We had the momentum going into the locker room,” said Stetson guard Victoria McGowan. “But we just didn’t come out ready for the second half; they jumped on us once again in the first five minutes and put us back in the hole.”

That sounded eerily similar to what Kennesaw State coach Colby Tilley experienced the day before in the semifinal.

“They make the shot at halftime and that kind of deflated us a little bit,” said Tilley. “Then they come out [in] the second half and hit those two threes in a row and that took a lot of wind out of our sails.

“We kept playing hard, we played hard. You know how kids are, after awhile, they start thinking, can we really come back?”

But for all the flashy shooting, similar to the old golf cliche that you "drive for show and put for dough", it's attention to the intricate details of basketball that helps FGCU win games by literally dissecting opposing defenses with one of the most complex offenses in the nation. It's an offense that's difficult to prepare for because nobody else in the nation runs one like it, as the Kennesaw State coach observed this weekend.

It sounds like a pretty straightforward offense: it’s a 5-out motion offense based on constant screening, continuous cutting and players reading their defenders. However, when you ask opposing coaches about it, the veil of simplicity is removed.

“Offensively, they run that offense that to my knowledge [that] nobody else runs and it’s tough,” said Tilley, who has been at Kennesaw State for 17 years. “You can scout them and you can see film but until you actually play against them, you don’t know what it’s like.

“And even though this is our third time playing them and we knew what they were going to do, they still did it better.”

Looking ahead to the tournament, FGCU might lose to a bigger program with more talented athletes, but their ability to do the little things on the court - reading screens, making the right pass, putting themselves in position to get good scoring opportunities - is second to none.

FGCU is an example of a trend that can be observed throughout the national landscape of college basketball - player development and execution can often be better among the most successful teams at the mid- to lower- levels of women's basketball because it has to be - they don't get the Brittney Griner’s, Skylar Diggins’, or Elena Delle Donne’s. To make up for a lack of marquee stars, these smaller programs have to play basketball as a unit and play hard every possession to maximize their individual talents.

If they don't execute they can't survive.

However, what gets lost in all of the discussion of FGCU's offense is their remarkable defense; this team is just as dominant on the defensive side - they're ranked 21st in the nation in opponents' points per possession. Their defense is relentless and suffocating as they led the A-Sun in scoring defense and three point defense and was second in steals and field goal defense.

“Defensively they would not let us do the things that we like to do,” said Tilley. “Which is a trademark of theirs; they don’t let teams do what they like to do. So we were never able to get any continuity at all and that’s attribute to their defense.”

Stetson Head coach Lynn Bria echoed those sentiments, “People talk about their offense, I think their defense is good, we had a hard time scoring.”

With an impressive 29-2 record, what they have accomplished this year is rather remarkable for a program that’s been only existence since 2002: They defeated Michigan State earlier this year who was the defending Big Ten Champions, they are the only the second team in A-Sun history to have an undefeated conference record and win the conference championship (Florida International, 1993), they have the most wins in a two-year span in the A-Sun with 57 and they broke FIU’s record for most wins in a five-year span with 129.

They are easily a top 20 team in the nation and they do it by playing good basketball not just by overwhelming opponents with talent. So when you think about their chances of pulling off a NCAA tournament upset - much less a run - it wouldn't even be that shocking given what they've already accomplished in such a short time.

Their success this season becomes even more impressive when put in the broader context of their program's history. After transitioning from the NAIA to Division II to Division I, this is a program that has truly been built from the ground up.

“He [Smesko] took a team from scratch,” said FGCU Athletics Director Ken Kavanagh. “So if you start something from scratch, you didn’t inherit anything, you had to do it when nobody knew who your name was. We have a beautiful facility now but when he got this program started, it wasn’t the case, they were practicing in high school gyms.”

When Kavanagh first came on in 2009, the recruiting budget for women’s basketball was $15,000. To put that in perspective, Notre Dame’s recruiting budget in 2010-11 was $198,021, University of Georgia’s in that same year was $160,000 and for the 2011-12 season, $175.000; that’s 967% more than what FGCU’s was.

“When I got there three years ago, his [Smesko] recruiting budget to be where we were located, $15,000.” said Kavanagh. “Many schools will spend $15,000 in one week in the summer.”

Constrained by that budget, Smesko has been on exactly one home visit in his 10 years: 6'3" freshman guard Whitney Knight, who naturally shoots threes from 3 feet beyond the arc.

“I knew that my senior year would be the first year that we could go to the NCAA tournament,” said Chihil. “It’s a great feeling being here for four years, this is everything we’ve worked for.”

Although this will be their first year participating in both the A-SUN and NCAA tournaments, they're the first program to ever make the WNIT all four years of their period of transition to Division I.

There are schools with much bigger recruiting budgets, with much stronger reputations, in much stronger conferences in the national landscape that couldn't accomplish what FGCU has with limited funds and ability to draw talent.

It almost defies logic.

However, FGCU is also an embodiment of increasing growth and parity in women's college basketball.

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