The VCU Rams open up the 2012-2013 campaign against the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles of the Atlantic Sun Conference. The game is connected to the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. FGCU, Toledo, Alcorn St., and Samford will each be playing at 2 Battle 4 Atlantis participants prior to the tournament. Those 4 teams will then play each other in an unofficial tourney of their own called ‘Atlantis on the Mainland’ at FGCU’s Alico Arena for the right to be included in the 2013 Battle 4 Atlantis field.
The 2 teams that FGCU drew from the Atlantis field as part of this arrangement are VCU (Nov. 9th) and Duke (Nov. 18th). While these 4 programs are supposed to represent sacrificial lambs for the 2012 Battle 4 Atlantis participants, FGCU will likely prove to be a tougher challenge than they might appear at first glance.
As only the second head coach in FGCU’s history, Andy Enfield did a tremendous job in his first year with the fledgling 5 year-old D1 program out of Fort Myers, Florida. Enfield is pretty young at 42 years of age, but he’s been a coach in some capacity at both the NBA and NCAA levels for 18 seasons now. He is one of the unsung stars in the coaching profession and looks to have a very bright future going forward.
Enfield set the NCAA career free-throw percentage record as a player at Johns Hopkins at 92.5% (431-466). He scored 2,025 points over his college career and was just as sharp in the classroom, being named NABC Scholar-Athlete of the Year in 1991 and getting his MBA from Maryland in ’94.
Once the ball stopped bouncing for him, he coached in the NBA as a shooting coach for the Milwaukee Bucks and then as an assistant for Rick Pitino’s Boston Celtics. He then started a private consulting business called All Net Basketball, tutoring dozens of NBA players in the off season on how to improve their shooting.
Following his NBA coaching career, Enfield jumped into the college coaching ranks. He is familiar with the Rams as he was an assistant coach at Florida State for 5 seasons, the last one being 2010-2011 when VCU knocked off the Seminoles in the Sweet Sixteen. He took the FGCU position later that spring where his impact was felt immediately by recruiting high-caliber players and instilling a culture of success both on and off the court. The way he wants his team to play is modeled after the style he coached at Florida State: aggressive man-to-man defense and up-tempo offense.
Florida Gulf Coast underwent the fastest transition from NAIA to Division 2 to Division 1 in collegiate sports history (9 years). The program was led in those years under Dave Balza who essentially started the program from scratch. The Eagles completed 4 years as a transitional D1 member where they were ineligible for both the Atlantic Sun and NCAA tournaments. Enfield was hired immediately following that period to guide FGCU in its first days as a fully eligible D1 basketball program last season.
It’s easy at first glance to look at FGCU and dismiss them as just another losing mid-major program, but delve a little deeper and a different picture emerges.
After welcoming 7 new players, losing 2 of the team’s best players to transfer, and returning 1 starter from the previous year, Enfield’s team went 8-10 in the Atlantic Sun and earned a spot in the conference tournament (only the top 8 make it). Once there, the Eagles made a run to the A-Sun Championship game in their first year of postseason eligiblity as a D1 program. They beat #3 seed USC Upstate (21 wins) and #2 seed Mercer (27 wins and 2012 CIT champions) on Mercer’s home court before falling to Belmont 83-69 in the final.
FGCU was also very competitive in many of their OOC games last season. The Eagles lost by 1 point at TCU, at SMU, and at Nebraska, by 3 at MAAC champion Loyola (MD), by 6 at Maryland, and by 10 at Miami (Fl). Enfield’s program improved 80 spots in the RPI from the year before and set a school D1 record for both overall wins (15) and conference wins (8) while having a young team dominated by freshmen and sophomores. They have the unmistakable look of a program on the rise.
With perennial power Belmont leaving the Atlantic Sun for the Ohio Valley Conference this season, there is an opening at the top of the league that several teams are vying for. In the preseason poll the Eagles were picked to finish 3rd in the A-Sun and return their top 4 scorers and 7 of their top 8. The Eagles return 85 percent of their scoring, 84 percent of their rebounding, and 92 percent of their assists.
Much like VCU, the Eagles went on a preseason overseas trip in early August. This allowed Coach Enfield 10 extra days of practice to evaluate his team and teach some basic concepts to the younger players. Afterwards FGCU went to the Bahamas where they played 3 games in 3 days against local competition, going 3-0 with an average victory margin of 30.3 points. They also shot nearly 40% as a team from behind the longer international FIBA 3-point line.
In addition to all the returners from last year, FGCU has added a one-time VCU recruiting target to this year’s lineup in 6’9 jumping jack Eric McKnight. McKnight transferred from Iowa State after playing sparingly his freshman year. He spent his red shirt season improving his body (he’s up to 225 pounds) and developing his post game. He has improved his footwork and added a hook shot as his go-to post move. The big man with the 7’2 wingspan is expected to give a nice boost to the front court on what has been a guard-dominated team in recent years. He’s expected to bring shot-blocking, rebounding, and an ability to finish around the rim that FGCU has lacked in the past.
Expectations for McKnight aside, this is a team that is strongest in the back court. The Eagles are led in scoring by a quartet of talented guards. They are a very good 3-point shooting team (37.4%) that likes to push the ball in transition. FGCU makes plenty of shots but has a tendency to fall in love with the jumper and lacks patience at times in taking the right shot. They also turned over the ball 14.8 times per game last year, led by a freshmen point guard in Brett Comer who turned the ball over more than anyone else in the country.
They return their leading scorer and rebounder in 6’4, 200 pound Sherwood Brown (12.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 1.2 spg) who was a 2012 2nd-team Atlantic Sun selection. He is the emotional leader and returning captain of the team. Brown has the ability to score both going to the rim and from behind the arc at 36.9%. He isn’t afraid to mix it up in the paint and grab boards as he led FGCU in offensive rebounding with 54 despite only being 6’4. He has worked on adding elements to his game as a passer and play-maker and was named to the preseason all-conference team.
The offensive attack is led by speedy and athletic sophomore point guard Brett Comer (9.1 ppg, 5.6 apg). His claim to fame prior to his FGCU career was as Austin Rivers’ back court mate at Winter Park H.S. in Florida. He was named to the A-Sun all-freshman team last season and led the league in assists. He’s a quick guard who likes to play up-tempo and run the floor for layups and kick-outs to several of FGCU’s proficient 3-point shooters.
His speed and distribution skills are mitigated by the fact that he had a tendency to be very sloppy with the ball. He turned it over a nation-leading 136 times, good for 4.3 a game.
Comer was also weak shooting the 3 ball last season (23.4%) and largely limited to shooting them when he was wide open. He has done the bulk of his damage by scoring or dishing in the paint to this point. Perimeter shooting has been a point of emphasis for him in the off season and he showed improvement in this area on the preseason trip to the Bahamas, shooting 6-12 from 3 point range over the 3 games.
Bernard Thompson (11.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 1.8 spg) was a one-time VCU target that the Rams evaluated out of Georgia. He had a fine freshman season at the 2 for FGCU and joined back court mate Brett Comer on last year’s All-Atlantic Sun Freshmen team. He was the second-leading scorer and rebounder on the team as a 6’3 guard, with a 6’8 wingspan that helped him lead the team with 57 steals as well. He was also a solid 3-point shooter at 37.9% and has impressive length and athleticism in the open court. He is the team’s best wing defender and can hurt a team in many ways on both ends of the court.
Chase Fieler is an athletic, bouncy 6’8 junior forward who was the leading shot-blocker (38) for FGCU last year. He averaged 6.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg, and 1.2 bpg in 30 starts for the Eagles last season. He has been soft playing in the post but is considered a glue guy who will do a lot of the little things. He uses his impressive vertical leap to snag rebounds and finish above the rim. He is also capable of hitting the 3 point basket with 22 made 3-pointers last year and a 33% average from beyond the arc. He has taken it upon himself to be a more vocal leader after being challenged by the coaching staff.
Eddie Murray (6.5 ppg, 3.9 rpg) is the other senior on this squad who leads along with Brown. He has been in the program for 4 years now after red-shirting out of high school and is very experienced. He’s a versatile forward at 6’8 who is coming off of an off season ankle injury but had an excellent off season working on his rip-through and face-up moves from the mid and high post. According to Andy Enfield, he’s also worked on his 3-point shooting although that was not a part of his game last year (4-13 on the season). Much like Fieler however, he lacks the bulk to really be effective in the post and has to resort to a mid-range game or catching the defense out of position to be effective.
There is talent beyond the starting lineup as the Eagles bring a pair of sharpshooters off the bench that are deadly from behind the 3 point line. 6’9 Croatian Filip Cvjeticanin (43% of 130 attempts) and Chris Varidel (42% of 143 attempts) were the #2 and #3 shooters in the Atlantic Sun respectively from behind the arc.
Cvjeticanin in particular presents a match up problem for his opponents with his ability to get separation on his shot with his height. He is also considerably athletic for his size. However he fits the common European stereotype of being soft in the post and tends to float to the perimeter. Varidel does not have the height advantage Cvjeticanin has, but he makes up for it in his own way with deep range several feet beyond the 3-point line where he is comfortable catching the ball in stride and shooting in rhythm.
Both Varidel and Cvjeticanin are major spark plugs off the bench which allows FGCU to throw different looks at defenses with the combination of the sharp-shooting bench duo and the fast and athletic starting tandem of Thompson and Comer.
Out of the incoming freshmen, Andy Enfield has mentioned one player that is standing out and ready to play coming in right away, 6 foot guard Dejuan Graf. Enfield says that the Charlotte native has perhaps the quickest burst on the team and is mature beyond his years as far as making the correct play with the ball in his hands. He doesn’t try to force the game and plays to his strengths. He’s fast with the basketball and sees the floor well while finding open teammates. Graf should get immediate time at the 1 and even started a game on the Bahamian tour. He is so good that Enfield is considering playing Comer, Thompson, and Graf together at the same time. With Comer’s propensity to turn over the ball, it isn’t out of the question that Graf will take over much of the ball-handling duties while sharing floor time with Comer.
Joining the program as BCS transfers who are sitting out this season are 6’10 F Nate Hicks (Georgia Tech) and 6’6 SF Jamail Jones (Marquette). Jones was a highly-touted, consensus top-100 recruit. Along with bringing in 6’9 eligible transfer Eric McKnight and 6’9 Filip Cvjeticanin the off season before, it’s clear that Enfield is putting a premium on size and length in building his program at FGCU. He is modeling the Eagles after his teams at Florida State and Ram fans know firsthand how long, athletic, and big FSU was with Enfield on the sidelines. Look for FGCU to make some serious noise in the A-Sun and beyond in years to come as Enfield gets his players into the program.
1. Pressure the ball: 20.9% of FGCU offensive possessions resulted in a turnover last year. Whether Comer is handling the ball or not, VCU’s style of play is ideal for matching up against the Eagles. Comer has proven susceptible to playing too fast and turning over the ball. While freshman Dejuan Graf looks to be the best ball-handler on the squad, he’s still just a freshman and will not have seen anything close to the intensity of a VCU press. Regardless of who Enfield has bringing the ball up against the defense, the Rams need to give the FGCU back court a healthy dose of Briante Weber and Darius Theus.
2. Rotate on 3 point shooters: FGCU can be a deadly 3 point shooting team when they get going. With Varidel and Cvjeticanin torching the nets off the bench and Brown and Thompson both able to knock it down at around 37% or better, the Eagles will be looking to get 3 point shots off of penetration by Comer and Graf. Our perimeter defenders need to rotate when needed and close out fast on FGCU’s shooters.
32.6% of FGCU’s offense last year came in the form of 3 point field goals. With the Eagles having averaged close to 40% as a team from the longer FIBA 3-point line in the Bahamas, our 3-point defense will almost surely play a large role in the outcome of this game. VCU’s opponents averaged 32.1% from 3 against the Rams last season, and if we can maintain a similar average, it will bode well for VCU.
3. Take care of the ball on offense: FGCU is long and athletic, especially with Bernard Thompson’s 6’8 wingspan and athleticism on the wings and McKnight’s 7’2 wingspan in the post. While they are no VCU, the Eagles 8.2 steals per game are well above the national average. Turning over the ball in transition where VCU’s defense can’t set up is a bad formula for success with the effective outside shooters the Eagles put on the floor.
4. Go to the post: The Rams have a mismatch here that they can exploit to great effect. FGCU has some size sitting on the bench, but not much bulk playing on the court, and while their bigs are all pretty athletic, they aren’t very strong on the blocks. D.J. Haley and Juvonte Reddic both have the size, bulk, and athleticism to own the boards and get good looks at the basket if they take it upon themselves to become the aggressors. More importantly, they now have a good amount of experience playing substantial minutes in big-game situations at their positions as juniors. It remains to be seen if they have developed that killer instinct as upperclassmen, but it would be both timely and beneficial if they can display it in this match up.
Asserting the post game early will open up the perimeter for Troy Daniels and Melvin Johnson and driving lanes for guards like Rob Brandenberg and Treveon Graham. This is a great opportunity for our post players to gain some confidence. Getting post touches on every half court possession would be a great sign for VCU not only in this game, but going forward into the season.
5. Look for the 3: Over 33% of the points that FGCU gave up on defense were from behind the arc last season. The Eagles allowed teams to shoot 36% from 3 on average last season, above the national average of 34.4%. If the Rams can claim superiority in the post and open up the perimeter, VCU should have plenty of clean looks at the basket from behind the 3-point line which should be music to Troy Daniels’ ears. That neon green light from Shaka Smart will likely be as bright as ever going into this one.