FGCU to make most of opportunity

Sarah Hansen, a 5-foot-9 guard, was the Atlantic Sun player of the year last season. Courtesy of Linwood Ferguson/Captive Photons

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Florida Gulf Coast coach Karl Smesko has watched a lot of Stanford games over the years. But he doesn't think he has ever spoken before with Tara VanDerveer, the Cardinal's legendary coach.

That's not surprising, considering their respective schools are 3,000 miles apart, and they have very different recruiting pools. Yet it seems somehow appropriate that Smesko's Eagles will be the opponent Wednesday in Mexico when the Cardinal go for VanDerveer's 900th career victory.

Why? Because you get the feeling that if Smesko and VanDerveer sat down to watch a game together, they'd end up talking for hours. They are both basketball technicians, coaches who love the cerebral choreography of the game.

For instance, there aren't just "good shots" and "bad shots." Everything is on a spectrum.

"The question always is, 'Can you play to your strengths for 40 minutes?'" Smesko said. "It's hard. You get comfortable, and say, 'This seems like a good-enough shot; it's not that contested.' But with a little bit more work, you might get a shot that's 20 percentage points better."

Sounds exactly like something VanDerveer would say, too, doesn't it?

Smesko's Eagles know even a perfect game Wednesday -- if such a thing could even be attained -- from them against the likes of Stanford is very unlikely to result in a victory. The Eagles fell to TCU 68-47 Tuesday at the Hardwood Tournament of Hope in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and are 3-2 this season.

Still, FGCU will go into Wednesday's matchup with the same attitude as it always does.

"Everything is about detail: Do things this way," Eagles redshirt senior Sarah Hansen said. "We're not as athletic or quick as a lot of other teams, so it has to be about the details. That mindset is what's let me be the best possible player I could be."

Hansen, a 5-foot-9 guard, was the Atlantic Sun player of the year last season, and is picked to repeat that honor this year. Hansen is the prototypical FGCU success story: She's from nowhere near Fort Myers, or Florida for that matter. She wasn't recruited by big-name programs. She'll be the first to say she isn't going to blow you away with her athleticism.

But she and her teammates will set precise screens, they will examine the physics of their shot, they will concentrate on their defensive footwork.

Hansen, a chemistry major, is from McKean, Pa., a borough in the greater Erie metro area, in the far northwest corner of Pennsylvania. So how do you lure a kid from the "snow belt" of the United States to the beaches of southwest Florida? Um, is this a trick question?

"If you look at what we have to offer down here, it's one of the most beautiful places in the country," Smesko said. "We don't have to limit ourselves to kids who are close to the university. You need to make sure a recruit is really willing to go away from home. But for one who is, being this close to the beach and having a campus that looks as nice as ours makes this an attractive option."

Not to mention the basketball is pretty good, too. The Eagles have gone undefeated in the Atlantic Sun the past two years and are picked to finish first in the league again this season. Hansen and redshirt sophomore Whitney Knight were both on the preseason all-conference team. Knight (15.8 ppg) currently is the Eagles' leading scorer, and Hansen is at 12.2 ppg.

"Coach built this program from scratch," Hansen said of Smesko, who is the only coach FGCU women's hoops has ever had and is 291-58 in his 12th season at the school. "I knew this was an up-and-coming thing they were building; they'd only been Division I for two years when I committed.

"I really wanted to be a part of this. But it wouldn't have been an easy adjustment, 20 hours from home, without the amazing people surrounding us every day. Our coaching staff is one of the best I've ever been taught by."

FGCU is a very young university, but is practically growing by the minute. The athletic programs started in NAIA in 2002, then moved up through Division II to Division I.

For women's hoops fans, the Eagles probably first entered the radar in November 2008, when they upset Florida 88-86. It was like, "The Gators lost to who? Florida Gulf Coast? Which is … where?"

The Eagles weren't eligible to play in the NCAA tournament until the 2011-12 season, and they indeed made their first appearance that year, losing a first-round game in overtime to fellow Cinderella-type St. Bonaventure.

Last year, FGCU went 27-7 and 18-0 in the Atlantic Sun. But the top-seeded Eagles lost to No. 2 seed Stetson in the A-Sun tournament title game, and didn't get an at-large NCAA tournament bid. Instead, they went to the WNIT, where they fell to Winthrop.

However, the FGCU men's hoops team was the darling of its NCAA tournament, with "Dunk City" becoming a favorite underdog in 2013. The No. 15 seed Eagles upset No. 2 Georgetown and No. 7 San Diego State on the way to the Sweet 16, where they fell to No. 3 seed Florida.

Their run put FGCU on the map for those previously unfamiliar with the school, and the entire athletic department benefited from it.

"On the women's side, we've had a slow build over the years, where we've converted more and more fans," Smesko said. "We've developed a very loyal following over time. But the men's thing was just an explosion -- no one could have predicted what happened.

"It brought enormous national attention to our university that we've never had before. Our recruiting is all over the country. But now when we talk to players from many states away, they've at least heard of Florida Gulf Coast. The name is out there, and we have the men to thank for that."

But the program has Smesko to thank for where it is right now, because he has been both architect and builder. And VanDerveer could relate to that. It's easy to forget that when she took over at Stanford in 1985, the Cardinal had played in a grand total of one NCAA tournament game -- and had lost that. Now, she has two NCAA titles and her program has made the NCAA field every year since 1988. Stanford is among the highest royalty in women's hoops.

And Smesko truly appreciates how the Cardinal have gotten to that mountaintop.

"They play high-IQ basketball, and it's tough to beat teams that play that smart," he said. "Especially with the level of players they are able to get. The thing about Stanford is they always know where their best matchup is. They don't just throw it around and whoever gets it, shoots. They understand where the ball should go.

"Let's say they don't score for three possessions … I know the next time, they'll make sure it goes to the post with the best matchup. And we know who that is this year. But they're not going another possession without them getting the shot that they want to get."

Smesko doesn't have a Chiney Ogwumike to design plays around, but his philosophy is much like VanDerveer's.

"We are going to have a lot of offensive moment, a lot of screening and reading of defense," Smesko said. "We try to create and utilize as much space as possible.

"We want to have a free-flowing, active game where everybody has an opportunity to get themselves open and contribute. We want to push tempo, but we're not trying to squeeze passes or take tough shots. The object is to get as good a shot as we can without taking a lot of risks with the ball."

Neither coach will get the preparation time they prefer, with both teams having played Tuesday. But it's a certainty that when VanDerveer looks at video of the Eagles, the last thing she'll be thinking is "900." Instead, she'll be saying, "Wow, I love the way they just set up that shot."

For the Eagles, this opportunity is one to be embraced, regardless of what the final score is.

"It's going to be a huge game for us; Stanford will be the best team we've ever played against," Hansen said. "We're going to have to execute like we've never executed before and pay attention to every single thing that we put in our game plan. We'll have to have extreme focus; they're one of the best programs in women's basketball."