Being a fan of Division I college basketball in Jacksonville can be a frustrating experience. For fans of Jacksonville University's Dolphins, the last moment of real glory was more than 40 years ago, when big man Artis Gilmore led the squad to the national championship game at the end of the 1969-’70 season.
Fans of University of North Florida's Ospreys, meanwhile, can’t count on even a sepia-tinged memory like that to keep their memories sweet. In a sense of real achievement, every season is frustrating … and 2012-’13 was no different: Both teams were bounced from the Atlantic Sun Tournament in the first round.
The less-surprising of the two eliminations was the first — No. 7 seed UNF fell 73-63 to Florida Gulf Coast in Macon, Ga., in front of a reported crowd of 683 souls.
In any given year, the Ospreys haven’t inspired excitement, and this year was more of the same: UNF finished with 13 wins, eight in conference play. The Macon game was actually rather competitive, though; UNF led by five in the first half, and was within three points with less than six-and-a-half minutes to play. Then Florida Gulf Coast’s Bernard Thompson scored nine consecutive points to effectively seal the victory.
The scrappy Ospreys did earn the respect of their opponents, however.
“Give UNF a lot of credit. They are an excellent basketball team, and I’m very happy with how hard we played to get the win,” Gulf Coast head coach Andy Enfield told FGCUathletics.com afterward. “We had different guys step up at different times in the game and when that happens, we are a dangerous team.”
Guard Parker Smith, an all-Atlantic Sun Conference second-team selection in 2011-’12, put up numbers that, as always, made observers wonder what would happen if UNF had more players of his caliber. Smith, a senior, scored 29 points, but given the Ospreys’ issues with turnovers and production inside the paint, he would’ve needed to score a few more to take the game.
Smith played his last game in a UNF uniform, and it's an open question how the team will replace his production and consistency next season. Despite Smith, no one expected more from UNF last week.
JU’s season was a different story. In what apologists for the program called a “rebuilding year,” the Dolphins had a plausible chance to make a run in the A-Sun tournament. That is, until they hit the court against University of South Carolina Upstate, which took control of the game early and never relinquished it, in a 76-62 victory that wasn’t as close as the score.
The loss was rooted in a breakdown of fundamentals, according to the Dolphins’ coach.
“We didn’t play Jacksonville basketball,” head coach Cliff Warren told The Macon Telegraph after the team finished the season with a dismal 14-18 record. “We turned the ball over, which helped them get some easy baskets. We don’t typically turn the ball over that much.”
When Warren came to JU, many observers — including me — expected those types of quotations would be a thing of the past. Thus far, Warren has failed to change that definition of “Jacksonville basketball,” which has been subpar and below the Division I level for so long, it’s almost not worth talking about.
The “Jacksonville basketball” on display could've happened almost any time in the last 30 years. From the start of the game, the Dolphins’ offense was so cold you could call it frostbite, with ball control that bordered on neglect. And when the team did get opportunities, such as from the charity stripe in the first half, they couldn’t convert. Shooting 4-of-9 at three free throws in the first half is the type of performance that will knock a team out of a game for good. JU trailed by double digits for most of the game, and it’s hard to put a positive spin on an effort so desultory.
Both teams are going to need improved recruiting if they're serious about competing, even in the lower tier of Division I play. This has been needed for a long time, but what was obvious during last week’s Atlantic Sun tournament was a hard truth: Both teams must increase their focus on fundamentals. Can they get that from the current coaches? We'll see.