ARLINGTON, Tex. — There’s no shortage of coaches, former pros and self-professed basketball gurus capable of diagramming a winning half-court offense or dissecting what makes a particular defense effective.
Steve Kerr volunteered neither Thursday when asked what he saw in Florida Gulf Coast, the high-flying upstarts who made college basketball history as the first No. 15 seed to reach the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16. Instead, the five-time NBA champion-turned broadcaster, who looked on courtside as the Eagles conducted a 50-minute practice at Cowboys Stadium, pinpointed something that can’t be rendered on a coach’s dry-erase board.
“One of the best ways to play basketball and then make shots is to do it loosely and having fun,” said Kerr, 47, who holds the NBA record for three-point shooting over a career (45.4 percent). “I think that explains a lot about this team’s success. They’re playing with great joy. It’s easy to be successful when you’re having fun.”
On the eve of FGCU’s showdown with third-seeded Florida in the South Region semifinals on Friday, the question is whether the Eagles can maintain that looseness on a surreal stage — a basketball court situated at midfield of an 85,000-seat football stadium (a venue 20 times the size of their home court, 4,500-seat Alico Arena) — knowing that they’re two games away from the Final Four?
“We just have to play free,” sophomore forward Eric McKnight said. “That’s what Coach tells us every day.”
Thursday’s shoot-around was designed to give the four teams remaining in the South Region a chance to get acclimated to the skewed sightlines of a court constructed on a platform and plopped in the middle of such a cavernous expanse. And the Eagles closed their session with the freewheeling abandon that became their signature in the tournament’s opening weekend, staging an alley-oop fest that delivered more laughs than made baskets.
“It’s the personality of our players and our team and our culture,” FGCU Coach Andy Enfield said afterward. “Our team chemistry is at an all-time high. What you’re seeing is genuine: They enjoy being here, they enjoy playing the game of basketball.”
But there is more than joy at work here. And there is more than “looseness” to the Eagles’ explosive offense, which erupted for 54 points in the second half alone against Georgetown in the first round and scored 47 second-half points (including a 17-0 run) against San Diego State in the second round.
So how did a bunch of players no major coaches wanted, from a school no one had heard of before last week, land in the high cotton of the NCAA tournament’s South Region, sharing a stage with No. 1 seed Kansas, No. 3 Florida and No. 4 Michigan, which boast six NCAA championships among them?
FGCU’s attack-oriented offense is directed by a keen-eyed point guard, 6-foot-3 sophomore Brett Comer, who has developed a knack for anticipating plays and, in particular, his teammates’ moves the split-second before they unfold.
Florida Coach Billy Donovan called Comer one of the better passing point guards in the college game. “He reads defenses as well as anybody I’ve seen,” Donovan said of Comer, who had 10 assists against Georgetown and 14 against San Diego State.
It was a process. As a freshman last season, Comer led the Atlantic Sun in assists and turnovers. But as his ballhandling has improved in recent months, the turnovers have dropped.
Meantime, 6-8 forward Chase Fieler threw himself into improving his fitness. And 6-3 sophomore guard Bernard Thompson retooled his shooting technique as directed by Enfield, 43, who bankrolled his graduate studies, in part, by running shooting camps and developing instructional videos.
When Enfield was hired two years ago, Fieler was so ill suited for the up-tempo game the coach installed that he fled the court 20 minutes into the first practice in search of a trash can, his system in revolt against all the running. Against Georgetown, Fielder was the guy who soared to the rafters to pull down a slightly mistimed alley-oop pass and finish with an eye-popping dunk.
For Enfield, honing players’ basketball skills hasn’t simply been a side occupation that paved his way into coaching. At FGCU, which lacks the recruiting budget and pedigree to land high school all-Americans, it is an imperative.
“Players don’t come into college with all the skills necessary, and if you don’t have a development program for them, they only get to a certain level,” Enfield said Thursday. “I don’t necessarily think we’re the best at it. But I can say we focus a lot of time on it.”
That means re-tooling shooting techniques, if need be, and working on ballhandling, footwork, post moves and off-the dribble moves. And the Eagles practice at full speed, just like they compete.
“I like to let our guys play,” Enfield said. “I think it’s extremely difficult to guard an offense when players have freedom and they can play within a system.”
Says Kerr: “As long as it’s fundamentally sound, playing up-tempo is fine. You can’t play that way and make a lot of mistakes and turn it over. But they have a foundation of fundamentals and decision-making. That’s what these guys do well.”
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Photos: Scenes from the tournament