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Eagles prepped and better equipped for another tourney trip

After a loss to Florida in las t year’s Sweet Sixteen, FGCU looks poised to make another run deep int o March Madness.

As we all know, the success of the Florida Gulf Coast University men’s basketball team last March changed the landscape of FGCU forever. Admissions applications shot up, home games became standing-room-only and parking on campus became even more of a hassle.

But what does all that mean for his year’s team?

After graduating only two players last year, the Eagles look like a more complete basketball team in 2014, and that could spell disaster for anyone who has to face FGCU in March. Here are three major reasons that the team is in an even better position this season than they were last year.

Depth

Simply put, this team has a much higher level of overall talent than the team that went to last year’s Sweet Sixteen, even without star forward Sherwood Brown. The Eagles returned four starters from last year’s team, but many of the reserve players put in hard work in the offseason to ensure that they would be a valuable asset in 2014, not a liability.

DaJuan Graf has improved his game dramatically in all areas, and his expanded skill set shined as he played 26 minutes in the Eagles win over Stetson on Jan.31. Graf’s improvement gives the Eagles the ability to put less on the shoulders of Brett Comer and Bernard Thompson in terms of minutes and production and provides the added option to play in a three-guard system.

Redshirt juniors Jamail Jones and Nate Hicks both gained their eligibility one year after transferring from Marquette and Georgia Tech, respectively. Jones has been a steady presence in the FGCU starting lineup all season, and Hicks did a nice job filling the void left behind during Eric McKnight’s suspension to start the season. In addition, Filip Cvjeticanin has become a legitimate threat from long-range, boasting 3-point accuracy better than 40 percent. Strong new additions and profound improvement from the Eagles’ bench could make them an even scarier matchup for whoever they see in March.

Basketball IQ

Within a week of losing to Florida in the Sweet Sixteen, Andy Enfield had already darted for the job at USC and left the Eagles wondering what the future might hold. FGCU was searching for a new head coach for only the second time in program history, and they had to make sure they got it right. By nabbing Joe Dooley from Bill Self’s staff at Kansas, the Eagles did just that. Dooley spent the last decade with the Jayhawks coaching one of the best teams in the nation and helping to prepare multiple prospects for NBA stardom.

While no one can argue that last year’s team was fun to watch, the inconsistency and unpredictable nature of Enfield’s style of play ultimately spelled disaster for FGCU. Dooley has implemented a much more balanced system that stresses playing in control and accountability on the defensive end. He has helped the Eagles grow their understanding of the game as a whole and focused on eliminating the mental mistakes that can bring a team down. The Eagles are much more methodical on the offensive end, and while it has resulted in a few less dunks in Dunk City, it has also cut down on turnovers and wasted possessions. By understanding how to effectively play situational basketball, the Eagles can do a much better job of controlling the tempo of the game and using it to their advantage. There are still plenty of dunks and alleyoops to be seen, but by cutting back on the run-n-gun style from last year, Dooley has made the Eagles a much more complete squad.

Experience

We’ve all heard the saying “been there, done that.” While it might be a cliché, we can’t pretend that experience doesn’t play a key role in almost any situation. That’s where these Eagles are miles beyond where they were at this point last year. This team knows how to win big games against big opponents. They didn’t shy away from the bright lights of March last year, and many of the players feel like they left some unfinished business on the floor at Cowboys Stadium. Having already been through this ride once, the Eagles will be even more mentally prepared for a lengthy run towards a championship.

While there was no shame in losing to Florida last year, many people, including myself, felt like FGCU had their chances to win that game and let it slip through its fingers. You can be sure that won’t happen this season.

This team has already faced a large amount of adversity between McKnight’s suspension and multiple drubbings at the hands of major-conference opponents. But even though they struggled against big competition, those games will help the Eagles be more prepared for whoever they face in March. Having the experiences of the past 12 months under their belt will ensure that the Eagles are ready to go, no matter what.

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