After a 64-53 win over the Patriot League's Holy Cross squad, St. John's continues the homestand against the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles. You might hear the name of a directional, city-non-specific University and think Saturday's post turkey-day matchup should be a blowout.
You would be wrong.
The Eagles have hung tough with a top-level ACC squad and beaten another in going to 4-2 on the season. With a frustrating defense, smart shot selection, and an experienced unit, the Eagles bring a squad that could take advantage of the Red Storm's work-in-progress defense to pull out a win.
St. John's will need to show some development and maturity on both ends to make this game a comfortable win. Yes, St. John's has the athletes; but as smart fans know, athletes aren't everything in the game of college basketball.
Mood music: Lily Allen, The Fear
Additional audio: Bernie Mac, I Ain't Scared of You M$%^*#@!?!" (from Def Comedy Jam) [foul language, NSFW]
Tip Off: 7:30 PM
Vs. Florida Gulf Coast Eagles (4-2; coach, Andy Enfield)
Location: Carnesecca Arena, Queens, NY
TV: ESPN3 | Radio: Bloomburg 1130
What's a Florida Gulf Coast?
There's something about west Florida and naming teams after regions, and not the city (i.e., "Tampa Bay" teams, though the city is simply... Tampa). "Gulf Coast" is not a city, the school is located in Ft. Myers, in southwest Florida.
On the map of the United States, the definition of "south" (as in, the University of South Florida) and location of Tampa on the gnarled finger that is Florida are at odds, presenting a "south" which is awfully close to "Central" Florida in Orlando.
The naming convention made sense at one point. Below Tampa was a wild mass of orange groves, the untamed swamp of the Everglades, marsh, alligators, panthers, sandy beach getaways, and an outlaw town, all watching the coastline for hurricanes and sweating in the humid, lush land.
It's reasonable if you have never heard of Florida Gulf Coast University; if you are of drinking age, it didn't exist when you were born. If the school was a basketball player, it would be a junior or a sophomore - and even that's hedging a bit. The school was founded in 1991 and began classes in 1997. The team started play in Division II in 2001 and moved up to Division I and the Atlantic Sun in 2007.
For ten years, the program was headed by one coach, Dave Balza. Once the team was set to become full Division I members in 2011-12, FGCU fired Balza and hired Andy Enfield, the former Florida State assistant and NBA shooting coach.
In the jettisoning of Balza, FGCU followed the script of the larger Ft. Myers area. Just as the city expands aggressively, tract by tract, claiming land from rain-sodden swamp and dirt for space for roads, strip malls, golfing communities, and more strip malls, the Eagles are chasing Division I success.
One day, a road passes swampland; the next day, that land is graded for a new development.
The school is new, the community is new, the program is new - and looking to bring some notoriety to a University most adults outside of Florida have no reason to have heard of.
First order of business - these players are, in all likelihood, not scared of playing a Big East team. With five starters returning and an eligible transfer from Iowa State, the Eagles have scheduled four chances to make a name for themselves vs high-major competition. The Eagles have already taken good advantage of their first chance, a win over visiting Miami Hurricanes.
At home in Ft. Myers, they outscored the University of Miami in the paint and held them to 29% shooting on their way to a surprising victory. They led for the first 9 minutes against Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and traded leads with the top-10 Duke Blue Devils until the 5:00 mark of the first half before being overwhelmed.
The FGCU Eagles will mix up defenses, showing a lot of zone, but will extend the zone beyond the three-point line. The results have been solid in the early going, but last year's Eagles squad went 15-17 while getting repeatedly burnt from beyond the arc.
Yes, that team couldn't defend, but the offense worked. A pair of slashing guards drove the ball and kicked it out to wings and forwards who could shoot, if they didn't take the points themselves. And that offense earned them wins in their first full Division I year in the competitive Atlantic Sun.
Remember those returning starters we mentioned? Familiarity and a high-major talent, coach Andy Enfield hopes, will lead to a far better defense. So far this year, the team has a lot of hustle, and will make scoring plays from scrappy, sloppy moments on the floor.
Cast of Characters
Quick like snakes.
Senior Sherwood Brown (26.4% of team's shots while on the floor) and sophomore Bernard Thompson (27% of team's shots) continue to be active scorers and willing assist men while slashing to the rim. Be wary: Thompson scored a career high 24 at Duke, shooting 6/8 on three-pointers. The pair, along with starting guard Brett Comer, will reach out for steals successfully, combining for 6 steals per game.
The Eagles will look to find open shots on the perimeter for Brown (4.2 3pt attempts/ game), Thompson (3.8 3pA/ game), Christophe Varidel (2.7 3pA/g), and Filip Cveticanin (3.5 3pA/g). St. John's needs to identify the shooters and rotate/ help quickly. When Phil Greene IV and Sir`Dominic Pointer defend at the top of the key, they have to be responsible for keeping their man from driving and drawing other Red Storm defenders.
The big panther.
The former Iowa State Cyclone Eric McKnight has high major athleticism at 6'9". He is a danger on the offensive glass (2.6 off. reb/ game), and is far more internally focused than the other big men on the roster.
Despite ten blocked shots, Holy Cross earned opportunities at the rim by penetrating the Red Storm defense, freeing space for cutting forwards. For Chris Obekpa and JaKarr Sampson (a combined 6.4 blocks/ game), defense has to come with the intelligence to keep the Eagles' shots in the lower-percentage areas of the paint - away from the rim.
The FGCU Eagles are turnover-prone, losing the ball on 28% of their possessions - near the bottom in the nation. The Eagles, however, are willing to make mistakes of aggression. St. John's has to deflect passes and use their mistakes to power scores in transition - and hopefully draw some fouls. Winning the loose balls, however, will take a high-end effort against the hustle of FGCU.
Prediction: FGCU could have a hot shooting night and win this one. St. John's gets the benefit of the doubt in this prediction, but the game could definitely be the year's head-scratcher loss. Still, the prediction is St. John's wins 68-64.