Fort Myers, Fla. The reminder of last season still adorns the front windows of Alico Arena, the gymnasium that Florida Gulf Coast basketball calls home.
Remember those guys? They’re back.
Florida Gulf Coast — the darling of college basketball this past March after knocking off Georgetown and San Diego State in the NCAA tournament, plus capturing the nation’s attention and earning a nickname that still sticks — is looking to do something even more impressive this season. The Eagles are heading into 2013-14 hoping to show that they were more than a two-game wonder.
“I say it’s a continuation of last year,” Eagles guard Brett Comer said. “We want to come out with the same style of play, build off of what we did last year in that aspect. But it is a new year. We’ve got a new coach, we’ve put in some new stuff, we all love playing for him and we’ve got to get focused on playing this year and not living in the past.”
That new coach is former Kansas University assistant Joe Dooley, who was working on a plan to shut down the Dunk City phenomenon a few months ago.
If FGCU and Kansas had both pulled off one more win last March, the schools would have met in the South Regional championship game with a spot in the Final Four on the line. Alas, the Eagles lost to Florida 62-50, and the Jayhawks fell to national runner-up Michigan in overtime, 87-85.
Not long afterward, Andy Enfield left Florida Gulf Coast for Southern California and the Eagles pulled off what many considered to be a coup in landing Dooley. If he remained at Kansas, Dooley would almost certainly have had a chance at helping Bill Self and the Jayhawks win another national title this season, plus get a chance to coach Andrew Wiggins — widely expected to be the top pick in the 2014 NBA draft.
Instead, he packed his bags for Dunk City.
“When you look from the outside, we’ve got some things that allow you to be in the top half of your league on a pretty consistent basis,” Dooley said, standing in the lobby of FGCU’s arena, one that’s very nice for the Atlantic Sun Conference but isn’t exactly a match for the storied Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kan. “And I wanted to be a head coach. Leaving Kansas was very hard for our family, but this was a chance to go somewhere and win.”
Dooley still has the scouting report Kansas would have used if it played Florida Gulf Coast on his desk.
Only now, it’s a blueprint of things to fix, not things to exploit.
“These guys want to get better,” Dooley said. “It’s always neat to see those stories. Now, behind that story, it’s about how can we continue to have success and make sure that we keep progressing.”
It’s not like the Eagles were just some Cinderella last spring. In their home opener a year ago, they beat Miami, a team that went on to win 29 games and sweep the Atlantic Coast Conference’s regular-season and tournament titles. They hung with Duke for about 15 minutes — before a 30-0 run doomed them — and had won 15 of 19 games heading into the NCAAs.
Then came Georgetown, a 2-seed against a 15-seed. Comer lobbed the ball to Chase Fieler with just under 2 minutes left, and Fieler’s right arm seemed to extend about 2 feet over the rim before slamming down the pass for a nine-point FGCU lead that served as an exclamation point of sorts.
Then came San Diego State, when the dunks kept coming. Dunk City was born.
“A lot of people didn’t realize before those two games that we dunked the ball all year,” Comer said. “Our first game here against Miami we had more dunks than any other game. If they want to call us Dunk City, they can. We’ll go with it.”
The Eagles open this season Friday at Nebraska, a program Dooley obviously has some familiarity with from the Jayhawks and Cornhuskers formerly being Big 12 rivals. Kansas won the last 17 games in that series, all with Dooley on the bench.
He’s been a head coach before, at East Carolina in the late 1990s, and had chances to be one again over the past several years. In the end, he decided that a school hardly anyone on the national scene was aware of before last March — with an on-campus beach as one of its selling points — was the right place for him to be one again.
“We wouldn’t be Dunk City if they hadn’t won,” Dooley said. “No one would have known.”