April 23, 2014
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Culture Watch: Making Their Points

Enjoy the dominance of FGCU's women's basketball team before its brainy coach gets lured elsewhere.

Coach Karl Smesko and the FGCU women's hoops team are once again blowing through the competition in the Atlantic Sun.

Coach Karl Smesko and the FGCU women's hoops team are once again blowing through the competition in the Atlantic Sun.

It hasn’t quite reached the death-and-taxes level of certainty. But in terms of sports in Southwest Florida, seeing the FGCU women’s basketball team playing meaningful games in March—let’s admit it—is simply a given.

If there is such a thing as a dynastic team in the Atlantic Sun Conference, it certainly is Karl Smesko’s Eagles. After joining the conference and Division I athletics in 2008—a year after being the runners-up for the Division II national championship—the hoops team has been on a dominating run. They’ve won the conference regular-season title three of the past four years (and are on pace to make it four of five). Ineligible for conference tournament play until last year, they destroyed the competition en route to their first tournament title, an undefeated conference season and a berth in the NCAA tournament. They finished 29-3 and were one spot away from making the Top 25—not the mid-major Top 25 of which they are a permanent fixture—but the real thing.

Pretty amazing for a school that only started playing a little more than a decade ago. The key is Smesko’s system, which blends a non-stop barrage of ball movement to create open three-point shots (which his players are seemingly free to shoot at will). Smesko is just playing the hand he’s been dealt. Unable to recruit the elite players who gravitate to major programs, he’s made strategic tradeoff s— shooting and smarts in exchange for size and athleticism.

The results: a team that, on a hot night, can set the NCAA record for threes made in a game, which it did earlier this year with 22 against East Tennessee State. And a team with a defensive intensity that consistently disrupts the opposing guards to the point of frustration.

The team has caught on with the community. Although there was a very vocal student section at a January home game against Lipscomb, the bulk of the 1,500 people in the crowd graduated from college several decades prior.

But they were clearly passionate. After star forward Sarah Hansen made a layup and was fouled, with a chance for a three-point play, the crowd erupted with approval. During a particularly long stretch without a made three-pointer, you could feel them shift to the edge of their seats in anticipation of the shot that would finally put the team back on track.

When it works, when shots are falling, Smesko’s system can be devastating to opposing teams. The Eagles quickly rack up points via forced turnovers and three-pointers. In the game against Lipscomb, the Eagles started the second half on a run that saw them jump from an eight-point half-time lead to a 32 point advantage in less than 10 minutes.

When it doesn’t work, it can get ugly. The Eagles were only up in the first half of that Lipscomb game because of their suffocating defense. The FGCU women shot a miserable 24 percent from the field and only 14 percent on the 28 threes they attempted.

And they don’t just beat up on weaker small schools in their conference. While Smesko has lost only 12 times in five seasons in the conference, his overall winning percentage at FGCU is nearly 85 percent and includes beating teams from the SEC, Big 10 and ACC in the past two seasons. Last year, in addition to adding another A-Sun coach-of-the-year award to his trophy case, Smesko was named the Kay Yow National Coach of the Year.

All of this means, that you better catch the excitement of Eagles women’s basketball domination while you can. Because some big-time program is going to lure Smesko away and the odds of FGCU finding a coach who can build a similarly imposing program are daunting.

 

MUST-SEE OF THE MONTH

Miranda Lambert at Germain Arena

MIRANDA LAMBERT IS ALL THE things that are great about country music. Her songs tell stories. She’s got just enough twang in her voice to melt your heart. And, when push comes to shove, you know she’s going to kick you in the teeth. As the reigning queen of the genre, Lambert is equal parts Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton, blending the backwoods- Barbie good looks with a larger-than-life attitude. And she has the musical chops to back it up. Hear her live at Germain Arena on March 15 with Dierks Bentley and Lee Brice.

germainarena.com

 

 EDITOR’S IMPASSIONED PLEA

 Just let the music happen.

 

SERIOUSLY? I KNOW WE ARE A SLEEPY LITTLE beachside resort town. I know people choose to come to Naples in part because they don’t have to deal with the vagaries of a vibrant nightlife scene. Naples is peaceful. The pace is slow.

But to complain about the noise from a concert that wrapped up by 9 on a Saturday night is a bit absurd. Yet, that’s what the organizers of a 13-week concert series at Bayfront have been dealing with. It was difficult enough to get permits from city officials who haven’t always been too keen on promoting music in Naples’ limits. Then they have to defend the concerts because they can (gasp) be heard a small distance away by neighbor. (After several battles in council chambers with opponents of the concerts, the organizers struck a deal with city leaders in early February that allowed them to keep going in exchange for fewer shows and a limited number of attendees. The Bayfront Homeowners Association opposed the shows, despite a majority of Bayfront homeowners surveyed supporting the concerts.)

We should be supporting anything that adds cultural opportunities to our community. Complain if you want about their choice of music. (I’m not too keen on Jimmy Buffett cover bands, myself.) But support the idea that someone is trying to organize events for the community, especially free events that might help support businesses in an area that isn’t the most robust in town.

As Naples has grown, it has diversified. It’s getting younger. There are more people who are still raising children rather than spoiling grandkids. We need to accept that in order to be the kind of well-rounded community that makes everyone feel welcome, we can’t roll up the welcome mat after sundown and turn off the lights.

—JF

 

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