Success Runs Deeper Than All the 3-Pointers

Coach Karl Smesko, who was hired in 2001, has guided Florida Gulf Coast from an N.A.I.A. program to a midmajor Division I behemoth. The Eagles were 27-2 and ranked No. 20 entering Friday's game.

FORT MYERS, Fla. — About an hour before the start of an afternoon practice last week, Kaneisha Atwater shot dozens of 3-pointers as a wall-mounted computer called the Noah Instant calculated the trajectory of each attempt.

The Noah, as the machine is known around Alico Arena, has become a rudimentary part of life for the women’s basketball team at Florida Gulf Coast University. The Eagles love to shoot 3-pointers — few teams in the country make more — and they spend hours trying to perfect the craft.

Atwater, though, was struggling to produce the high-arcing, 45-degree parabola that she felt would help maximize her odds of having the ball sail through the hoop. The Noah, with its robust speaker system, spewed numbers — 39, 41, 37 — that confirmed what Atwater, a junior guard, already knew.

“My shots are flat right now,” she said.

She also appeared to be under the impression that she was working on her game in relative seclusion. The gym was otherwise empty except for the presence of Chelsea Lyles, an assistant coach who was rebounding for her and providing encouragement. But someone else was watching, too.

Karl Smesko, the team’s head coach, rose from his chair in a luxury suite tucked high in the arena.

“She’s shooting it low, and nothing is changing,” he muttered as he leaned over the railing to face the court below.

“Hey, Lyles!” he barked. “Get her to shoot it 45 and above!”

As the architect of one of the country’s winningest programs this side of Connecticut, Smesko lets little escape his notice. He crunches statistics, shunning midrange shots in favor of layups and 3-pointers. He devours game film. He studies shooting technique and defensive positioning. He also exercises his vocal cords, going so far as to carry an electronic whistle. He simply presses a button on the hand-held device, and all the action stops.

“I think he does it so he can yell and blow his whistle at the same time,” said Jamie Church, an assistant director of communications for the athletic department.

Credit...Corey Perrine for The New York Times

“Come on,” Smesko said. “I honestly don’t think I yell that much.”

Smesko, 44, who was hired in 2001, is the only women’s basketball coach the university has ever known, guiding Florida Gulf Coast from its infancy as an N.A.I.A. program to a successful stretch as a Division II team to its current status as midmajor behemoth. The Eagles, who have reeled off 22 straight victories, are 27-2 and ranked No. 20 entering their quarterfinal Friday against North Florida in the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament.

Their success might come as a surprise to those who know Florida Gulf Coast as Dunk City, a moniker that has accompanied the men’s team since its seismic splash in the 2013 N.C.A.A. tournament, which included upsets over Georgetown and San Diego State as a No. 15 seed. But the women’s team, which ranked third in the country in made 3-pointers, averaging 9.6 a game, has been more dominant, winning five straight Atlantic Sun regular-season championships while assembling a 209-45 record since joining Division I in 2007.

“I think we sort of feel like, O.K., the men made their run and now we want to make ours,” Jenna Cobb, a senior guard, said.

Yet for all their gaudy winning streaks and postseason aspirations, the Eagles continue to do their dirty work behind the scenes, in the weight room and at practice, when no one is watching — no one, that is, except for their fancy wall-mounted shooting computers and their tireless coach.

“As a coach,” Smesko said, “you worry about everything.”

When the Eagles gathered for practice last week, they were getting ready for a home game the next day against Jacksonville. The team’s work began shortly before 4 p.m. when Smesko distributed a two-page scouting report and gave his players 15 minutes to study it. Then, he randomly called on Cobb to recite it from memory.

“It still gives me anxiety sometimes,” Cobb said afterward, “because I’m like, ‘Is he going to call on me?’ ”

Smesko adopted the practice six years ago, as an effective way to get his players to learn the material. Sure enough, Cobb marched through every piece of information, referring to opposing players by their numbers — no names, just numbers — before Smesko turned off the lights and spent about 30 minutes going over film.

Credit...Corey Perrine for The New York Times

“Guys, what’s going to happen after the flare?” he said as he hit pause. “Cross screen elevator, right?”

The Eagles speak a complicated language all their own — Smeskoese? — and their chatter continued through the afternoon, with references to triangle screens, a play set called Horns and several varieties of ball reversals. But Smesko did most of the talking, and his preferred milieu was disappointment that bordered on exasperation.

“Hey,” he said three minutes into the first drill, “how about we try to look tough?”

Several minutes later: “Hold up, what are you doing? You guys are missing some basic concepts of basketball.”

And then: “All right, get on the line. Anyone know why we’re on the line?”

Smesko asked a lot of questions. Answers were not always immediately forthcoming.

“He’s the most honest coach I’ve ever met,” Cobb said. “If you’re the best player on the floor, he’ll tell you. If you’re the worst player on the floor, he’ll definitely tell you. But it’s great because there are no secrets. He’ll say what he wants to say in front of the entire team.”

The son of a high school coach, Smesko grew up around the game in Ohio and learned to appreciate the importance of precision from an early age, even if his personal approach had more to do with brute force. He was a point guard who seldom settled for outside jumpers.

“When I played, it was put your head down and get to the basket,” he said, noting that the 3-point line was still something of a novelty at the time.

Smesko still works out — his body resembles a large kitchen appliance — but during the season, he said, he tends only to lift weights in 15-minute spurts.

“I always feel like I could be doing something else to help the team,” he said, “so it’s hard for me to stay in there long.”

Smesko, who is not married, lives about a mile from campus and has little time for outside interests, although he does enjoy heavy metal music. Late at night, he might blast some Iron Maiden while he concocts practice plans in his office, but only if no one else is around. A large tattoo of the scales of justice on his lower left leg covers up an older tattoo of the logo for the metal band Queensrÿche.

“I still like Queensrÿche,” Smesko said, almost apologetically, before explaining that the new tattoo had more resonance. “I’m a big believer in the idea that you usually get what you deserve. And if you want good things to happen, go out and earn them.”

So while the university has tried to promote his team — a social media campaign involving the hashtag #RainingThrees has not exactly gone viral — the players know that it is up to them to take the next step. They have lofty goals after making cameos in two of the last three N.C.A.A. tournaments, both of their first-round exits coming in overtime.

“That sticks with you,” said Whitney Knight, a junior guard and the Atlantic Sun’s player of the year.

As demanding as Smesko can be in practice, the players recognize the purpose behind his petulance. No team sinks every shot. No player is perfect.

“But it’s a process,” Cobb said, “and we know what he expects from us.”

Last Saturday, one day removed from a practice in which Smesko nitpicked every mistake, real or imagined, Florida Gulf Coast took the court for its regular-season finale and walloped Jacksonville by 31 points. Atwater made 11 of 14 shots, as she and her teammates made winning look easy.

The truth was more remote, something only they understood.

In Other News

© 2020 US News. All Rights Reserved.