In its perennial effort for excellence, the Florida Gulf Coast University women’s basketball team always lines up as rugged a non-conference schedule as it can.
But this year’s schedule is mind-boggling.
Headlined by a Thanksgiving week meeting with reigning national runner-up Notre Dame in Mexico and prized home dates with major attractions Duke and LSU, FGCU’s schedule shows how good the Eagles believe they can be this season.
Mostly, though, as FGCU coach Karl Smesko puts it, it reveals how good the rest of the basketball landscape thinks the team can be – deep, talented and experienced.
And dangerous enough to perhaps stand a chance of reaching the NCAA tournament Sweet 16.
“It’s always a two-way street,” said Smesko, who led FGCU last season to its sixth ASUN tournament title and accompanying NCAA tournament berth in 8 years of eligibility.
“When you’re supposed to be pretty good, a lot of times the only teams that will play you are the teams that also think they’re going to be really good,” he said. “When those are the only games available, you start to have a schedule like we have.”
FGCU loses only two players from last season’s rotation, and they’re critical ones in fifth-year seniors Lisa Zderadicka and Destiny Washington.
But six upperclassmen return to the rotation. And four are seniors, including leading scorer Nasrin Ulel, leading rebounder Tytionia Adderly and ASUN tournament MVP Keri Jewett-Giles.
The latter, from Dunbar High School in Fort Myers, even changed her mind late in the summer – opting to return for a fifth year of eligibility – in part because of the strength of the team.
“I feel like we have a chance to do great things,” Jewett-Giles said. “Especially with more people coming back (and) the chemistry we built last year. You never want to give that up.”
With fellow fifth-year senior guard Davion Wingate also back, and former Indiana State guard Ashli O’Neal transferring to FGCU as a graduate student, the Eagles have three starting-caliber point guards able to provide constant pressure and pace.
“They’re all super-quick athletes,” Smesko said. “Having two or even three of them on the floor at the same time just makes us even quicker.”
Washington’s versatility – she was third on the team in scoring, second in rebounding and first in blocks and field-goal percentage – is irreplaceable.
But junior Kerstie Phills returns from the frontcourt rotation and will be joined by sophomores Tanner Bryant and Emma List and junior Alyssa Blair in trying to fill that void.
Junior guard Chandler Ryan, who shot 41.1 percent on 3-pointers last season, and sophomore guard Tyra Cox, who played well after Zderadicka was injured in February, also give FGCU depth and experience to potentially start the season fast, and perhaps finish even faster.
“We have so many returning players that know how we’re supposed to do things,” said Smesko, in his 18th season as FGCU’s program-founding coach. “Hopefully that moves things along quicker so we can be a little better in the early part of the season than normal.”
The team opened the season at FIU on Nov. 5, then faced its first major test in its home opener Nov. 13 against UCF. (Both games took place after the magazine’s deadline.) The Knights reached the NCAA tournament last year and finished the season with a record of 26-6 and RPI of 15.
Three more NCAA tournament qualifiers from last year – not even including December Alico Arena visitors Duke and LSU, perennial powers both forecast to rebound from down seasons – further pepper a non-conference slate Smesko agreed is the program’s toughest ever.
Also of significance this offseason, long-time Eagles associate head coach Chelsea Banbury left for her first head-coaching position, at D-I High Point University in North Carolina.
Assistant coach Jenna Cobb also moved on from the team. But former Eagles point guard Shannon Murphy returned to the program as an assistant coach, one more point of encouragement for a program potentially looking at a historic campaign.
“We’re lucky to have Shannon rejoin us, somebody that knows our style of play very well,” Smesko said. “I like the fact that despite some changes in the coaching staff we were able to keep a unit that gets along great together and works well together.”