After stellar seasons for both the men’s and women’s basketball teams last year, there will be some big changes in 2016-17, but there are two comforting constants: coaches Joe Dooley and Karl Smesko remain at the helm, despite having other schools come courting.
In the aftermath of a season in which the men won the Atlantic Sun tournament and thrashed Fairleigh Dickson in an NCAA Tournament First Four game before losing to eventual NCAA runner-up North Carolina, Dooley interviewed for Wright State’s head coaching job and was linked to the St. Louis opening and the assistant coaching job at North Carolina State. In the end, he decided to stay at FGCU and received a $35,000 raise for this season (boosting his salary to $275,000) and a two-year extension that takes his contract through the 2019-20 season.
Smesko, meanwhile, led the women to the A-Sun regular-season title and to the championship game of the WNIT (beating Bethune-Cookman, Wake Forest, Hofstra and Michigan along the way), where they narrowly lost to South Dakota to finish the season 33-6. Then came the inevitable pursuit of Smesko, who has the fourth-highest winning percentage among active Division 1 coaches: He was contacted by Arizona and Wisconsin about their head coaching openings. But he’ll be on the FGCU bench for his 15th season in a bid for FGCU’s seventh straight ASun regular-season title.
But that’s where the similarity ends. They couldn’t be returning to more dramatically different scenarios.
Dooley welcomes a team that includes all but one starter (Julian DeBose) and two reserves (Filip Cvjeticanin, Brian Greene Jr.), and features players who accounted for nearly 90 percent of the team’s total points, rebounds and assists in the 2015-16 season. Smesko had to wave goodbye to four starters and eight seniors, including A-Sun Player of the Year Whitney Knight, who was selected by the Los Angeles Sparks in the second round of the WNBA draft and released after several weeks, t hen picked up by the San Antonio Sparks.
Dooley’s big offseason started with the contract extension on May 7. “I appreciated that Dr. (Wilson) Bradshaw, (Athletics Director) Ken (Kavanagh) and the Board of Trustees have confidence in me,” he says. “It always helps in recruiting and stability and even from your family standpoint. (Opposing coaches) use everything against you in recruiting every day. I’m sure that would have just been another point of contention. But any advantage you can find in recruiting, everybody uses. I’m sure they would have some fun with that.”
Then Dooley’s offseason got even better when former Bishop Verot star and four-star recruit Ricky Doyle announced that he was transferring from Michigan to FGCU, giving the Eagles perhaps their most celebrated player ever. Doyle has to sit out this season under NCAA transfer rules, but he’s already having an impact. The Eagles might be better this season even without Doyle ever wearing the uniform – just from him having him banging on their big men during workouts.
“I think it’s great,” Dooley says. “You’ve got a guy sitting in the wings who’s going to challenge them every day. I think it makes for better practices. And better practices usually make for better teams.”
He’s got help with that. Just before classes started in August, CJ Williamson, a 6-foot-6 sophomore transferred from Texas Tech. Although he’ll sit out the season, he’ll be on hand for practices, too.
And then another piece of good news: 6-foot-8 forward Marc-Eddy Norelia announced that he was withdrawing his name from the 2016 NBA draft and returning to FGCU for his redshirt senior season.
Norelia had decided in April to declare for the NBA draft, but because he did not hire an agent, he was allowed to keep his amateur status throughout the evaluation process and still return to FGCU if he didn’t feel comfortable with what he discovered. As a result, Dooley is feeling extremely comfortable, because Norelia was a first-team A-Sun selection who frequently put the team on his back last season, leading the team in scoring (17.1) and rebounding (9.3) and setting school single-season records for points (597), rebounds (325) and field goals made (234).
“Obviously, it’s huge for our program,” Dooley says. “It’s pretty cool. He’s the first player who committed to us when we got the job. He developed into an all-league player and a really good leader. Hopefully, he’ll have the type of senior year we expect.”
Norelia will be part of a strong front court that also includes 6-9 senior Demetris Morant, 6-9 redshirt junior Antravious Simmons and 6-7 redshirt junior Kevin Mickle, but there is plenty of firepower in the backcourt with 6-5 junior Christian Terrell, 6-2 redshirt sophomore Zach Johnson and 6-2 redshirt junior Brandon Goodwin (a UCF transfer who sat out last season), along with incoming freshmen Christian Carlyle and RaySean Scott.
“I think we’ve got some versatility,” Dooley says. “Obviously, we have more depth and hopefully, if we get everybody healthy, we can play it a few different ways. We can throw the ball inside. We can play small. We can play big. It’s all about matchups.”
If the team’s exhibition games in the Bahamas in August were any indication, they are headed into the season with energy and drive, winning all three games, one of them with just three players on the courts.
Meanwhile, Smesko is trying to solve a mystery: Just what kind of team does he have? Only six women return: 5-9 redshirt junior guard Taylor Gradinjan; 5-7 redshirt junior guard Jessica Cattani; 5-9 redshirt sophomore guard Tayler Goodall; 5-11 redshirt junior forward Haley Laughter; 5-7 redshirt senior guard Sydnei McCaskill; and 5-8 redshirt junior guard China Dow. And of those, only Gradinjan was starting at the end of last season.
There is some talent among the eight newcomers – Tytionia Adderly, Jordin Alexander, Rosemarie Julien, Mikala McGhee, Morgan Meacham, Erica Nelson, Chandler Ryan and Nasrin Ulel – but Smesko concedes he has no idea what his starting lineup will look like.
When Smesko raids his memory bank, he can come up with just two FGCU seasons that compare to this: the first one in program history, in 2002-03, when he arrived and galvanized an obviously unfamiliar group into a 30-1 machine; and 2012-13, when FGCU was missing six of its top seven players and yet went 27-7 and didn’t lose a regular-season A-Sun game. That’s an odd feeling for a coach who has guided FGCU to nine straight postseason tournament appearances.
“The majority of our team are going to be players who have never put on an FGCU uniform, so it’s really hard to tell how they’ll come together, how quickly they’ll pick things up,” he says. “But I will say the new players that were here this summer have had a good work ethic and good attitude. And for me, it was exciting to start with the new group.
“I just feel really good about the players we brought in. Really, it’s been fun for me so far. Hopefully, they’ve enjoyed it. I’m excited to see how good we can become. I understand that our first game is in November (11 vs. Quinnipiac), and maybe it will be tough to look like a well-oiled machine at that point. But I think we have some pieces that as season goes on, we could be a really good team.”
How strange will it be? Smesko theorizes that his team will be picked third in the preseason A-Sun poll. But fear not, FGCU faithful: He won’t be abandoning the high-motion spread set offense that has terrorized opponents. They’ll be frenetically flinging three-pointers and playing pressure defense. “We added players we thought would work well in our system,” he says. “The system will change to accommodate the best uses of our players, but it will still be recognizable FGCU basketball.” So relax and enjoy the ride.