For much of the last six weeks, FGCU men’s basketball coach Joe Dooley has talked about how his Eagles “need to figure things out quickly” and that “the clock is ticking” on multiple occasions this season.
Well, time is just about up.
The reality of being a mid-major is that conference play is the most important part of the season, and for FGCU, that begins on Saturday as they host Stetson in the Atlantic Sun conference opener for both schools.
It’s been an often-bewildering season for the Eagles, who enter conference play at 9-8. They’ve had some good wins – a season-opening 98-87 win over Illinois State, an 85-78 win at on the road at UT-Arlington, and some impressive close calls, leading late against then No. 11 Wichita State on the road. But they’ve also had some plainly confounding losses, including home losses to Oral Roberts and FAU.
“We’ve got no choice,” Dooley said on Dec. 29 after a win against NAIA Florida Memorial on if the Eagles are ready for conference play. “We’ve got some work to do. From Monday to Saturday we’ve got a lot to do, practice on Monday and Tuesday to hopefully get some momentum towards conference play.”
The Eagles have been outrebounded in nine games this season, and they’ve been equal or negative in turnover margin in 11 games this season.
Last season, only five FGCU opponents shot better than 50 percent from the floor all season. It’s happened four times this season already.
“We need to get our defensive identity back. The crazy thing is its not our first shot defense, it’s our second shot defense. We don’t rebound the ball nearly as well as we should,” Dooley said. “Our first shot defense is fine but we give up way too many offensive rebounds. Too many guys just staring at the rim instead of hitting a guy and pursuing the ball.”
Still, there’s no panic from the players.
Christian Terrell, the only four-year player on the team, is still having a terrific season, third on the team in scoring at 12.8 points per game, and oddly enough the team’s leading rebounder, pulling down 5.5. He’s also the Eagles’ best three-point shooter, 34-of-68, and is shooting 54.7 percent from the field in all.
He thinks they’ll get it together.
“Of course,” Terrell said when asked if the Eagles still expect to win the ASUN on Dec. 29. “We had a great practice yesterday, if we keep building on that we’ll be back to where everyone thought we were. We’ll just keep going and keep building, and get better every day.”
The frontcourt has borne the brunt of the criticism about this year’s Eagles team. To be fair, Demetris Morant and Marc-Eddy Norelia left a big void for anyone stepping in, not to mention the loss of defensive specialist Kevin Mickle, but with returning center Antravious Simmons, and incoming transfers Ricky Doyle, Brady Ernst, and Michael Gilmore, it seemed that there would be plenty of talent coming in to fill the gaps.
That simply hasn’t happened. The Eagles haven’t been able to find any continuity on the floor – at any position. Sunday’s game against Florida Tech marked the 11th different starting lineup in 17 games this season. No forward on the Eagles roster has averaged more than 20 minutes per game this season, Simmons is the closest at 18.4.
“Our frontcourt has played a little bit better,” Dooley said. “There’s been some progress with ball-screen defense. I do think we have some frontline depth, hopefully those guys through some practice and repetition will continue to get better.”
Brandon Goodwin, the team’s leading scorer at 17.5 points per game, is treating ASUN play like a new season.
“I’m just excited for us, it’s a new start for us,” Goodwin said. “It’s the time now we’re going to have to lock in 100 percent and play for one another.”
Goodwin also thinks the Eagles will get it together.
“I don’t see why shouldn’t. We have the players, we have the coaching staff. We’ll be all right, we’ll be ready.”
Ready or not, conference play is here.
(As of games played Jan. 3)
North Florida 6-11
Kennesaw State 4-11
USC-Upstate, Jan. 11
NJIT, Jan. 13
at Lipscomb, Jan. 18
at Kennesaw State, Jan. 20
at North Florida, Jan. 24
Jacksonville, Jan. 27
North Florida, Jan. 29
at Jacksonville, Feb. 3
at NJIT, Feb. 8
at USC-Upstate, Feb. 10
Kennesaw State, Feb. 15
Lipscomb, Feb. 17
at Stetson, Feb. 22
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