FGCU eyes first NCAA tournament
Eagles a 3-point launching, turnover-forcing group just on the outskirts of the Top 25
For a guy who hasn't gone anywhere, Karl Smesko has come a long way.
As a result, Florida Gulf Coast is going places.
A decade ago, Smesko was the coach of what he thought would be an NAIA program, one that had yet to play its first game. He worked out of a makeshift office in a trailer he shared with other members of the fledgling athletic department. His first individual workouts took place on the asphalt of an outdoor court, constructing a team even as the school in Fort Myers, Fla., constructed a building in which it could play.
Yet his team won by 17 points the first time it took the court. The next night, it won by 46 points. It lost just once that first season, rolling to a 30-1 record against the likes of Indiana Tech, Cardinal Stritch University and Flagler College.
Like a lot of coaches winning in the most distant reaches of college basketball, Smesko moved on to bigger and better things. Unlike almost any of his peers, he didn't actually move to do so, save for relocating to a better office. The first women's basketball coach at Florida Gulf Coast University, the one whose team beat Ohio Dominican University in that first game on Nov. 22, 2002, is still the only coach in program history. He led Florida Gulf Coast in its rapid rise through Division II and into Division I. And he finds himself with one of the most intriguing teams in the nation this season, a 3-point launching, turnover-forcing group that is on the outskirts of the Top 25 at 24-2.
It would qualify as success beyond anyone's wildest dreams, if not for the reality that bold dreams were all the coach had to sell at first.
"It's one of those things where you have to find some players that are maybe willing to see what you see," Smesko recalled of the program's start. "Be able to envision what is possible rather than what is actually before their eyes."
What is possible is now right before their eyes. In the program's first season of NCAA tournament eligibility after completing the reclassification process to Division I, Florida Gulf Coast is on the verge of finally taking its place in the real madness of March after four consecutive trips to the WNIT. The Eagles clinched the Atlantic Sun regular-season title and improved to 16-0 in league play with a convincing 79-56 win against second-place Stetson on Feb. 18. If they defend their No. 1 seed in next week's conference tournament, their first as members of the Atlantic Sun, they go dancing. And they might stick around.
To understand how Florida Gulf Coast got here, start with Kelsey Jacobson. It's not that the senior, currently third on the team in scoring, is a program-defining talent along the lines of Elena Delle Donne or Jackie Stiles, although she is 22nd in NCAA history in 3-point field goals and has a chance to crack the top 10 before she's done. But Jacobson is a talent who explains how the program defines itself. A native of Barnesville, Minn., a town about 30 minutes from Fargo, N.D., she spent the long winters and too-short summers in the upper Midwest shooting jumper after jumper in hopes of turning the same kind of 5-foot-8 frame seen in gyms around the country into a basketball commodity.
"Growing up, my goal had always been to play Division I basketball," Jacobson said. "It was never 'I want to get to the WNBA,' or 'I want to play pro.' It was always to play Division I basketball. So starting in seventh grade, I worked on my shot, just so that I could try to get to Division I. Some people are more blessed with higher athleticism skills, but it doesn't matter how athletic you are, you can work on your shot if you start early."
All those hours of practice notwithstanding, she didn't put on a shooting show in the only half of basketball Smesko saw her play in the AAU tournament that served as his introduction to Jacobson. That might have been enough for some coaches to move on to the next name or the next court and relegate her to one of the Division II programs on her list. As the basketball world has been reminded in watching Jeremy Lin's rise in recent weeks, evaluation is hardly an exact science. In this case, Smesko was less interested in what happened to the shots once they got to the rim than everything that came before.
When you're one of the newest teams in Division I, even one with Florida weather and beaches to offer, you need players who believe in you.
"When I went to see her, she didn't shoot it well," Smesko said. "But you could tell by how much she was working to get shots and how much they were looking to her for shots, she had to be a good shooter. For her, the thought of going away from home didn't bother her at all; she just wanted an opportunity to play Division I basketball. When we brought her on the visit, I knew right away she was our type of player. You don't have to speak to her very long to figure out this is a kid who will work at it, is competitive, is smart. We found a very good one when we found her."
Jacobson was named Atlantic Sun freshman of the year, breaking the conference record for 3-pointers in a season and finishing fourth in the nation in 3-point field goal percentage in her first season. Four seasons later, she is the most prolific 3-point shooter on the nation's most prolific 3-point shooting team, but as the latter suggests, she has company. Whatever the level, Smesko always viewed the 3-point shot as a leveling tool, that extra point erasing whatever advantages opponents might have in size, speed or athleticism. He wasn't in favor of moving the 3-point line back this season in the women's game, calling the evidence the NCAA presented in support of the change "spurious at best," but it hasn't slowed down his team -- the Eagles lead Division I with 10.8 3-pointers per game and rank in the top 20 in accuracy at 36.7 percent (last season they averaged 10.9 3-pointers per game on 37.2 percent shooting).
"Everybody knows that when they're open, they have the green light to shoot," Jacobson said. "That's always a great way to play; you don't have to play scared about taking shots."
The flip side of the equation is keeping opponents from getting inside the 3-point line at the other end. Florida Gulf Coast is 10th nationally in scoring defense, allowing just 51.8 points per game, but it barely cracks the top 100 in field goal defense. Like fellow mid-major power Green Bay, Florida Gulf Coast makes a defensive living by creating turnovers, a trait that serves it well when it goes against the kind of teams it would face in the postseason. At the mid-major level, it's often better to be a team that does something unique than a team that is simply better at doing the same things its peers do.
"Defensively, we're not a very big team," Smesko said. "So for us it's always a team-oriented defense where we understand we have to give a lot of help that we have to be really strong with our rotations and with our communication. We need to make a lot of defensive plays and turn people over before they get the ball inside or an offensive rebound or something along those lines. We really emphasize the things that force turnovers."
Jacobson and fellow four-year Eagle Courtney Chihil -- another 5-foot-8 guard whom Smesko contends is one of the nation's most underrated players for her willingness to do anything and ability to accomplish most of it -- are the kind of players the program needed to get a foot in the door in Division I. Redshirt sophomore Sarah Hansen, the leading scorer in each of her two seasons on the court, is the kind of player it needed to keep it open. Oregon State transfer Brittany Kennedy and Whitney Knight, a 6-foot-3 freshman guard who already has more blocks than the entire team had last season, are the kind of players it needs to close the door behind it and make itself at home, in much the way Gonzaga did in transitioning from quintessentially undersized mid-major overachievers like Heather Bowman to stockpiling major-conference prospects.
The result is that point in time when an emerging program still has a chip on its shoulder as it still looks to prove itself and the talent to do something about it.
Smesko sounds realistic about both the long odds his team would face in getting an NCAA at-large bid should it lose in the conference tournament and the seed it would likely receive if it does make it. But considering he has come from practicing on asphalt and telling recruits about an arena that exists only on paper to this point in the span of a decade, it's understandable he's still willing to believe in the power of possibility when it comes to any ceiling on success.
"Logically, you would think that there is," Smesko said. "But then you see some things, even on the men's side, where maybe we just think there is a ceiling there. You look at the teams that are at the top, the UConns and schools of that nature, and the difference between the talent and athleticism is so great, it seems like it would be hard to overcome the very top teams. But I think you've just got to have one of those things that you believe in your program enough that if you get the right pieces together, the best team doesn't always win.
"If you can have the best night at the right time, maybe you can break through a ceiling."
Jacobson envisioned what was possible. She signed on knowing she wouldn't get a chance to play in the NCAA tournament until she was a senior, and even then, a chance only through the relative randomness of a one-and-done conference tournament. That was enough. In the first game Jacobson and Chihil played, Florida Gulf Coast upset a Florida team that won 24 games that season. All they want is a shot. They know what to do with those.
"I think early on, bigger schools, they saw us walk onto the floor -- we're a smaller team, smaller lineup and we don't have much of an intimidation factor with our physical looks and stuff," Jacobson said. "So I think in the beginning, other teams might have taken us a little lightly, but hopefully now we're getting a little more respect as we're winning."
There's no better time to earn that respect than March. And March might finally be Florida Gulf Coast's time to shine.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn.com.
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