The Mid-March scene in Alico Arena was so familiar as to look like a recording: thousands of FGCU basketball fans rising to their feet in heartfelt applause, players – and their self-effacing coach, Karl Smesko – dancing. Another ASUN Conference tournament trophy held aloft. Once again, the women’s basketball team and the program’s only coach secured a third straight NCAA tournament berth – its sixth in the eight years since the school has been a full Division I member. On the sidelines were two important FGCU figures from different eras whose expressions said everything about this season for both basketball programs – the women who reached the “Big Dance” again under their nationally revered coach; the men who didn’t under a new but familiar face.
Kelsey Diemer, formerly Jacobson, a key player on the 2011-12 team, the first to reach the D-I NCAA tournament, said, “Every year I get asked, ‘How’s the girls’ team going to be?’ They could have 10 new players. But I know it is going to be top level. It’s unbelievable what he does.” Nearby, freshman Caleb Catto, who grew up in Southwest Florida admiring former FGCU stars such as Brett Comer and Bernard Thompson, looked on with envy.
“It’s inspiring,” said Catto, standing with other members of the men’s team that went 14-18 under first-year coach Michael Fly. “It’s motivating.” The final tally for the women was another sterling record (28-5) and then a 69-62 loss as the No. 13 seed at No. 4 Miami in the NCAA tournament first round. Major roster turnover and injuries hamstrung the men’s squad, which made its earliest exit from the ASUN tournament since 2011-12. Still, there is hope.
“I’ve been doing this awhile at this point, at some different places with really good teams and really good players,” said Fly, 35, named FGCU’s fourth men’s basketball coach after seven seasons as an Eagles assistant, including three that led to NCAA tournament berths. “Never faced this much adversity in one season,” Fly said. “Ever.”
The setbacks started scarcely after FGCU Director of Athletics Ken Kavanagh quickly named Fly to succeed Joe Dooley as head coach last April when Dooley left after five seasons to become head coach at East Carolina. Powerhouse guard Zach Johnson, expected to lead a team already losing fellow stalwarts Brandon Goodwin and Christian Terrell to graduation, transferred to his hometown Miami Hurricanes.
In December, senior guard Haanif Cheatham, a key transfer from Marquette, succumbed to a shoulder problem. Surgery ended his season and college career. Weeks later, senior center Ricky Doyle, who battled multiple health problems after leaving Bishop Verot High School in Fort Myers but was counted on after finally getting healthy, also ended his college career because of chronic back woes. In January, starting forward RaySean Scott Jr. was sidelined by a knee injury, and junior backup guard Decardo Day was dismissed for violating team rules. The upside to losing so many players was the critical playing time Catto, fellow freshman guard Zach Scott and sophomore forwards Brian Thomas and Troy Baxter Jr. got, setting a foundation that reminded some of Fly’s first season in Southwest Florida. That was 2011-12, when Comer and Thompson were then-rookie coach Andy Enfield’s first signees, returning players Chase Fieler and Sherwood Brown were being reshaped into program pillars, and the arrival of Dunk City was only a season away.
FGCU in 2012-13 famously became what is still the only No. 15 seed in NCAA tournament history to reach the Sweet 16. “There are certainly some similarities” to the 2011-12 season, said Kavanagh. “When that season ended, I think everybody was already excited for the next year. I think that’s the way a lot of people feel.” From mid-January to March, FGCU went 9-4. Highlights included a win over then-reigning conference champion Lipscomb at home and narrow losses on the road to regular-season ASUN cochampions Liberty and Lipscomb.
When the league tournament arrived, an injury, to junior forward Brady Ernst, provided a perfect microcosm of the season. The fourth-seeded Eagles started badly at home against No. 5 NJIT, falling behind by 20 points in both halves. They came roaring back both times behind their young players and seniors Dinero Mercurius and Schadrac Casimir, a oneyear graduate transfer who finished as the team’s season scoring leader.
FGCU ultimately lost 83-78 to bring an end to the Eagles’ run of six seasons with at least 20 wins. But many fans applauded in the end. Given the growth of the underclassmen, as well as an oversized signing class that FGCU is confident will bear fruit, many are keen on the future. “I’m probably one of the most optimistic people you’ll ever meet,” said Catto, a Southwest Florida Christian Academy graduate who was in seventh grade when FGCU burst on to the national scene in 2013. “I believe 100 percent in a tournament run. You’ve got to have big dreams and big goals. I know Sweet 16 sounds crazy. But that’s something in my heart I want to do. They left the imprint, so let’s follow in their footsteps.” There’s no question whose imprint is greatest in the women’s program.
Despite losing five seniors, Smesko’s squad reloaded to be nationally relevant again this season. Not even a late-season knee injury to senior guard Lisa Zderadicka could keep FGCU from maintaining its place alongside women’s college basketball royalty UConn, Notre Dame and Baylor as the only D-I women’s programs with at least 25 wins every year since 2010-11. Zderadicka and returning junior starters Nasrin Ulel and Tytionia Adderly provided strong continuity to last year’s team. But with transfers Keri Jewett-Giles, Destiny Washington, Kerstie Phills and Davion Wingate all new to the lineup, it took the Eagles several months to develop the cohesion needed to make Smesko’s intricate systems effective.
Central to that was a level of unity not all programs are lucky enough to have. “I’ve been on two other teams, and I’ve always had my close friends,” said Washington, who came to FGCU as a graduate transfer after stops at Ball State and Loyola-Chicago. “But the moment I got here … it was just so easy. We just naturally wanted to be around each other.” In the NCAA tournament, a cold start for FGCU’s prolific 3-point attack put the Eagles in an early hole. They trailed by 14 early in the third quarter. Jewett-Giles, a product of Dunbar High School who transferred to FGCU after two seasons at Southern Miss, led a fierce comeback. Her 3-pointer early in the fourth quarter gave the Eagles their only lead of the game, 51-50. But it wasn’t enough. A lack of depth cost the Eagles, slowed down the stretch by fatigue.
“I thought we were capable of playing better, and I think everybody on our team thought we were capable of playing better,” Smesko said. “But I’m proud of the effort our young ladies had. We feel like we have a good program that we’re going to break through and get to the Sweet 16, or better, sometime soon. But (it) wasn’t to be today.”