The defending Atlantic Sun champion Florida Gulf Coast University women’s basketball team will have a chance to improve its NCAA tournament stock on Friday night when the Eagles host No. 20 Kentucky.
FGCU, seeded 13 in last season’s NCAA tournament — where the Eagles lost a 62-60 controversial first-rounder at Miami — almost surely has to win the ASUN tournament yet again to make the Big Dance. Then again, a win here could help with at-large things should the Eagles be stunned in the ASUN bracket.
But FGCU coach Karl Smesko isn’t thinking that way. Only about possible seeding in the NCAA tourney.
“If you make the NCAA tournament and you have a win over Kentucky, that changes your seeding dramatically,” said Smesko, whose program’s highest-ever seeding was seventh in 2014-15 when the Eagles beat 10th-seeded Oklahoma State before falling to second-seeded Florida State.
FGCU (8-2) has a season-opening home win against another Power Five conference team, Illinois. The Eagles demolished the Fighting Illini, 85-61. And they beat then-No. 21 DePaul in Las Vegas.
But Kentucky (8-1) is an entirely different deal.
“We know Kentucky’s a really good team,” said Smesko, whose 3-point heavy players beat NAIA power Southeastern University, 76-66, at home on Tuesday night. “They’re a top 25-type team. They have that quality.
“They’re going to be playing right here in Alico, so we’re hoping for a huge turnout.”
The always smallish Eagles — whose losses came against now-No. 9 Ohio State and Belmont in Las Vegas — will, of course, be dwarfed against the Wildcats, who start four 6-foot or taller players. The Eagles have just one 6-footer in seldom-used true freshman Liberty Brown.
“They’ve got some good size inside,” Smesko said. “They rotate their posts. They just got one post back (6-2 freshman Tatyana Wyatt; 12 ppg, 4.8 rpg ) who was out with a concussion. So they’ve got four big kids — some of them are more athletic than others — that they can rotate in and stay fresh and keep coming at you.
“The big thing for us will be, can we compete on the boards with them? Can we get everybody contributing on the rebounding?”
Those are big “cans.” FGCU was outrebounded, 38-34, by taller — but nothing like Kentucky tall — Southeastern on Tuesday night and the Eagles have been outboarded by an average of 1.5 this season. Kentucky pummels its foes on the boards, 45.9 to 36.1.
But there’s lots more to Kentucky as the Eagles prep for this first-ever matchup against the Wildcats, whose lone loss was at No. 8 Baylor.
“They’ve got a couple of great shooters,” Smesko said.
None better than junior guard Maci Morris, a 6-footer who leads the Wildcats with 16.7 points and has made a ridiculous 57.4 percent of her 47 3-point attempts.
FGCU, of course, also has some shooters. The Eagles already have poured in 127 3-pointers, and starters Nasrin Ulel (52.9 percent), Taylor Gradinjan (42.7) and Rosemarie Julien (37.3), a 5-11 senior forward who leads the Eagles with 14.3 points per
game, have been money from behind the arc.
Southeastern University came to Alico Arena averaging 88.9 points against its NAIA foes. But the Eagles slapped some D-l defense on the Fire in Alico Atena on Tuesday night (Video by Dana Caldwell/Naples Daily News)
By Dana Caldwell
“We have to shoot it better than we did (against Southeastern),” said Smesko, whose team shot 44.4 percent from the field and made 11 of 33 trey tries against the Fire.
Kentucky’s offense has been outstanding. The Wildcats average 79.7 points and 17.9 assists. But it’s the aggressive defense that holds foes to 36.1 percent from the field and 27.9 percent from behind the arc and forces 14.9 turnovers that most concerns
“They’ll pressure you,” Smesko said. “Sometimes they full-court press man. They’ll try to pressure you on the perimeter and try to get you to make some mistakes. They definitely believe in getting after you.”
Julien, who led FGCU with 25 points on Tuesday, knows what’s coming.
“It’s a good challenge for us,” she said.
FGCU has played similar teams, including the 89-84 win over DePaul two weeks ago.
“Fortunately we’ve played some teams that had that same philosophy and we’ve been a little inconsistent against it,” Smesko said. “But there’s been times when we looked really good against pressure.”
There will be lots of that, in several ways, for the Eagles on Friday night.
Florida Gulf Coast University women (8-2) vs. No. 20 Kentucky (8-1)
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: Alico Arena, Fort Myers
Series: First meeting
1) Crash the boards. Kentucky, which has four starters 6-foot and better, has dominated the rebounding game against its foes by an average of 43.4-31.7. Always small FGCU has been outrebounded by an average of 1.5. The Eagles were outrebounded, 38-34, by taller than them NAIA foe Southeastern University in Tuesday night’s 76-66 home win. If the Wildcats don’t beat the Eagles up too badly here, FGCU could have a real shot.
2) Be smart and patient. Kentucky plays extremely aggressive defense, sometimes of the full-court variety. It will be hugely important for the Eagles to take their time, yet pass crisply. And to always be ready to line-up 3-pointers right after catches. Attacking the lane often off dribble drives, which the Eagles love to do, might too tall of an order here.
3) Stick to Morris. Maci Morris is a 6-foot junior guard who averages 16.7 points and has made 57.4 percent of her 3-point attempts. If the Eagles don’t stick to her like glue, she could bury them under treys.
— Dana Caldwell