The FGCU men’s basketball team surprised everyone on Satuday…by looking like themselves.
The Eagles looked exactly like the preseason Atlantic Sun favorites that the coaches and media picked to repeat at conference champions in Saturday’s conference opener against Stetson. They shot nearly 70 percent from the field in the first half, and never looked back as they crushed the Hatters, 90-52.
“We have a new attitude, a new energy toward this conference,” guard Brandon Goodwin said. “We’re looking forward to our next game, Thursday, to keep proving that we belong here. We want to be on top.”
USC-Upstate comes to Alico Arena on Thursday, part of a three game homestand to open up conference play for FGCU.
Now the important question is: now that we’ve seen it once, will we see it again?
Zach Johnson said after the Stetson game that the Eagles(10-8, 1-0) were playing with the “swagger” they had been missing in prior games.
“We played with a little bit of swagger that was kind of missing and we definitely didn’t have over the last couple of games,” Johnson said. “It’s a confidence builder. We’ve got to keeping working in practice and keep getting better.”
The Spartans(5-12, 0-1) are in the midst of a rough season thus far. Already needing to replace leading scorer and rebounder Michael Buchanan from last season, Upstate was delivered a bit of a surprise when longtime coach Eddie Payne stepped down in October, just weeks before the start of the season, citing a slow recovery from ankle surgery.
Interim coach Kyle Perry has inherited, to put it lightly, a difficult situation. The Spartans have won just one game, an 88-78 win over Abilene Christian on Nov. 25, against a Division I opponent.
Junior Malik Moore leads the Spartans with 15.0 points per game, and on the glass with 6.1 rebounds per game, while Deion Holmes(12.7 ppg), Mike Cunningham(11.7 ppg), and Jure Span(10.9 ppg) join double in double figures.
“We’ve prescouted them,” Eagles coach Joe Dooley said Saturday. “They’ve done a great job shooting the ball. They’ve been playing a little smaller, so we’ve got some matchups we need to figure out.”
One bit of good news – if you’re an FGCU fan, that is – is that Upstate is one of the worst defensive teams in the country. According to the KenPom rankings, which only account for games against Division I schools, the Spartans are the worst in the nation in defensive efficiency(121.5 points allowed per 100 possessions) and in effective field goal percentage(61.7 percent).
That said, the Spartans have been able to stay in games, even if not winning them, thanks to their three-point shooting. Only five teams in the country – North Florida is one of them – attempt more threes in a game than Upstate.
KEYS TO THE GAME
The three-point line – Upstate is the worst team in the nation defending the three, with opponents hitting 42.8 percent of them(that number jumps to 47 percent if you only count games against Division I schools). But on offense, they have four players who can hit the three regularly, led by Span shooting 41.1 percent(37-of-90). The Eagles will need to take advantage of Upstate’s lax defense, while not falling into the same trap themselves.
Rebounds – The Eagles haven’t been great at stopping other teams from getting rebounds this year. Good news!
The Spartans aren’t good at rebounding either. Upstate ranks 332nd out of 351 Division I teams in rebounding margin, getting outrebounded an average of 6.4 per game. With Brian Thomas back in the lineup, and potentially a healthy Antravious Simmons, and against a team with only two rotation players over 6-foot-7, the Eagles should be able to control the boards with ease. Should.
Pace and space – FGCU has no problems scoring. Upstate has plenty of problem stopping scoring. But Upstate does trend toward a matchup zone, something that tends to give the Eagles fits. Play with pace and tempo, using Goodwin and Johnson to push ahead before the zone can get set up to allow more open and flowing ball.
Don’t take it lightly – The Eagles probably have no business losing to Upstate. But, they didn’t last season either…until they did. A Michael Buchanan putback with 1.9 seconds to go gave the Spartans a 62-60 win on FGCU’s home floor last year. Buchanan may be gone, but the sentiment remains: take this game lightly, the result may be the same.
USC-UPSTATE vs. FGCU
Thursday, 7:00 p.m.
Alico Arena, Fort Myers
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