FORT MYERS, Fla. — Different team, different coach, different situation.
Same Dunk City magic. At least, that’s what Florida Gulf Coast hopes is the case.
The team that stole the show over the first week or so of last season’s NCAA tournament — reaching the Sweet 16 as a No. 15 seed that ran and dunked with so much flair that it rebranded the school almost overnight — has the Big Dance within reach again, now just two home wins away from getting back to the field of 68.
The Eagles (21-11) play host to East Tennessee State (18-14) in the semifinals of the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament on Thursday night, and a win in that game means the title game would be back in Fort Myers, or Dunk City, on Sunday.
And yes, this team still has some of the swagger left from last spring.
“I feel like when we play the right way, no matter what, nobody’s going to be able to beat us,” FGCU guard Brett Comer said.
He was asked to clarify — did he mean nobody in the Atlantic Sun, or nobody, period?
“Whatever you guys want to write it down as,” a smiling Comer told a roomful of reporters after the Eagles topped Stetson in Tuesday’s Atlantic Sun quarterfinals. “Whatever you guys say.”
FGCU lost some of the key players from last season’s team, coach Andy Enfield to USC and entered the A-Sun tournament as the No. 1 seed, unlike a year ago when the Eagles were considered a bit of an underdog.
Not this time. That bulls-eye has been on Dunk City from Game 1 of the season. And the strains seemed to show a bit early on, but the Eagles are 15-4 in their last 19 games and look to be peaking when it matters.
“They are a formidable opponent,” Stetson coach Corey Williams said, “and they are going to do well.”
Williams’ team lost by 22 points on Tuesday night, getting into an early 33-13 deficit and never getting itself out of trouble. His team missed a ton of easy shots early, playing right into FGCU’s hands.
In short, Williams knew that a team with as much postseason savvy as FGCU wouldn’t need much help.
“Those guys are experienced,” Williams said. “They’ve been there, done that, got the T-shirt. … When you go to the Sweet 16 like they did, that becomes very valuable. Very valuable.”
Make no mistake, Dunk City still dunks, preferring an up-tempo style with plenty of emphasis on 3-pointers and ringing up plenty of points.
But overlooked last season, and probably again this season, is defense is emphasized as much as the dunks are celebrated.
“These guys will be the first to tell you, because I wasn’t here last year, that when they got good defensively is when they got good,” said FGCU coach Joe Dooley, the former longtime Kansas assistant who took over at Dunk City following Enfield’s departure. “I think there’s got to be a bunch of different ways to win. You’re not always going to score.”
Many of the 4,500 or so in the sold-out arena were wearing shirts paying some sort of homage to last season’s Sweet 16 run.
The A-Sun quarterfinals were all business for the Eagles, who know another NCAA chance is out there. They also know that a loss now would take it all away in a hurry.
“It brings back some memories, but for the most part we’re trying to make new memories,” said forward Chase Fieler, probably FGCU’s biggest key on both ends of the floor. “We don’t want to think about the last years’ ones. We want to have our new ones and try to repeat.”
That’s also why, Comer said, being a No. 1 seed now isn’t making the Eagles think the NCAA trip is assured. Plus, they’ve already lost to East Tennessee once this season, so overlooking them on Thursday seems unlikely.
“At the end of the day you’ve got to come out and play, no matter what seed you are,” Comer said. “I think that’s something we kind of proved last year.”