Experienced backcourt of Comer and Thompson hope to lead Dunk City back to glory

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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here.

America is familiar with common Florida destinations like South Beach and Disney, but last March, basketball fans quickly became aware of the brand-new Sunshine State landmark known affectionately by college basketball enthusiasts as “Dunk City.”

Dunk City — technically located in Fort Myers, Florida in the Southwest portion of the state between Tampa Bay and Miami — quickly became a national phenomenon, complete with gear, hashtags (#DunkCity) and the attention of the national media as the 15-seeded Eagles blew past Georgetown and San Diego State to become the first 15 seed to ever reach the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16.

Head coach Andy Enfield bolted for USC in the offseason and senior leader Sherwood Brown exhausted his eligibility but the good news for Dunk City is the return of four starters, led by the dynamic junior backcourt of Brett Comer and Bernard Thompson.

Comer and Thompson started all 37 games during Florida Gulf Coast’s 26-11 season in which they won the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament and advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history. The Eagles were a transitory Division I program beginning with the 2007–08 season and granted full D-I membership before the 2011-12 season, so for the Atlantic Sun program to receive at least four nationally televised games during the 2013-14 season is a testament to the power of Dunk City and how the nation took notice.

“Now I tell people that I go to FGCU and they’re like, ‘Oh, Dunk City!’ I could just tell them I go to Dunk City they say, ‘Oh, you go to Florida Gulf Coast!’ I like the name and it represents us well,” Thompson said. “We dunk and we have a high-flying style of play. So I think it’s good for us and our school since our school is so young and the nickname helps us.”

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Former long-time Kansas assistant coach Joe Dooley takes over for Florida Gulf Coast at head coach this year as the Eagles become the hunted. They’re the preseason favorite to win the Atlantic Sun thanks in large part to the passing of Comer and the all-around skills of off-guard Thompson. Comer was 14th in the nation in assists, averaging 6.6 dimes per contest last season, as many of his passes and lobs led to Dunk City throwdowns. The 244 assists Comer dished out were the second-most for a single season in Atlantic Sun history and he was the A-Sun Conference Tournament MVP.

Comer’s backcourt teammate Bernard Thompson is often on the receiving end of his point guard’s creative passes as the two close off-court friends have been in the Florida Gulf Coast program together since they were freshmen. Thompson won the A-Sun’s Defensive Player of the Year award as a sophomore and is the team’s leading returning scorer at 14.3 points per game. At 102 total steals last season, Thompson was second overall in the country in defensive thefts. Roommates the past two years, Comer and Thompson will take the Eagles as far as they can go this season.

“It’s nice to have Bernard back there. We both came in together and we’ve both grown together too. We create a lot off of each other here and we’ve been doing this for three years,” Comer said. “And having guys like Chase (Fieler) come back and our transfers will be coming in, so we’ll have a good core coming back and some new pieces here.”

Chalk up another assist to Comer for mentioning his teammates, as he’ll have plenty of weapons — besides Thompson — to work with this season. Fieler, a senior forward, averaged 12.1 points and 5.4 rebounds per game last season while accumulating 59 dunks that helped him garner a 56 percent field goal percentage and forward Eric McKnight is a 6’9″ junior that put up 60 percent field goal shooting and adds a shot-blocking presence to the group. Marquette transfer and 6’6″ junior Jamail Jones is a former top-100 recruit that’s eligible this season and will replace Brown’s presence in the lineup and Georgia Tech transfer Nate Hicks adds a versatile 6’10” inside-out option.

“(Hicks is) good. He’s versatile and for someone his size, he can step out a little bit and knock down shots, so that helps us out a lot,” Thompson said of Hicks.

But new coach Joe Dooley, who is incorporating a similar high-paced attack for the Eagles this season, knows that his backcourt will make all the difference if Florida Gulf Coast is to make another NCAA Tournament run this season.

“We’ve got some experience back, four starters and those guys have a pretty good feel for how to play together,” Dooley said. “You have a point guard that’s a two-year starter and you have a two-guard that’s a two-year starter and they have some familiarity playing in the conference and playing together and hopefully they’ll make another jump this year.”

CLICK HERE to read through the rest of NBCSports.com’s feature stories

Thompson and Comer spend plenty of time away from the court playing Call of Duty, getting food or  just hanging out, but together in the same backcourt, they know where each other is going to be at all times.

“Brett just has tremendous, tremendous vision. He’ll see me and we just read each other,” Thompson said. “It’s just a great chemistry that we have; a great bond that we have. You’ll see it on and off the court. It makes it a lot easier for me and him that we know each other’s tendencies.”

Because of their chemistry and experience, the Eagles have expectations that exceed the results of last season’s group. It’s hard to contemplate another Sweet 16 run — or beyond — but Dunk City is trying to follow-up on last season’s run with another run that matches or exceeds that effort.

“We want to win the conference regular season — which we didn’t do last year — and we want to win the conference tournament again and we want to make the NCAA Tournament and make more noise,” Comer said of the team’s expectations. “I think that we showed that we have good players and we can compete with anybody.”

But in a state that LeBron (currently) calls home, Dunk City is just happy to have found its place on the national basketball landscape for the time being.

“We had people come out-of-state just to see us, just to come get our autograph,” Thompson said.  “And the fans, the Dirty Birds (the student fan base), just come out to everywhere we play just to support us. It’s just been good that we’re recognized and when you go somewhere people are like, ‘Florida Gulf Coast,’ and know it’s us. So that feels good just to get the recognition.”

Excitement for the sequel to Dunk City is building. Dunk City after Dark — the program’s season-opening madness event — will air on ESPNU as one of nine programs that the network will air and Comer said that excitement for all sports on Florida Gulf Coast’s campus was continually building over the course of 2013.

Dunk City is squarely on the map for now, but are they here to stay? The Eagles are enjoying the ride and they hope it continues in 2013-14 and beyond.

“I think we helped put the school on the map and it’s growing from that. It’s a lot of fun down here now,” Comer said.

VIDEO: Presbyterian’s Toss for Tots night earns technical foul for charity

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Presbyterian College held an cool and unique fundraiser this week.

In a game against Toccoa Falls, the Blue Hose held what will now be an annual Toss for Tots event. It was simple: after the first basket of their game on Thursday night, fans in attendance were asked to throw a stuffed animal onto the court, with every stuffed animal earmarked for a local elementary school.

Presbyterian ate the technical foul for the cause:

In total, 108 stuffed animals were “donated”.

The program had partnered with Bailey Elementary School, where there are 103 students. On Friday, the team delivered every student at the school one of the stuffed animals for Christmas. Head coach Dustin Kerns told NBC Sports that the team spent some times with the kids today as well, reading to the team and putting a smile on their face.

“Proud of our team,” Kerns, who is in his first year with the program, said. The win against Toccoa Falls was the fifth in a row for the Blue Hose, the first time the program has accomplished that since going to the Division I level. They are not 6-5 on the season after winning five games a year ago. “It was fun seeing out program give back.”

Presbyterian Sports Information Dept
Presbyterian Sports Information Dept

Rape charges will not be filed after last year’s incident in Kansas basketball dorm

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The Douglas County District Attorney’s office will not file sexual assault charges stemming from a report that a 16-year old girl was raped nearly a year ago in the Kansas basketball dorm.

“After an exhaustive review of all available reports, evidence and testimony, our office has determined there is not sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt a sexual assault occurred,” District Attorney Charles Branson told the Lawrence Journal-World. “Unless additional evidence or reports come to light there is insufficient evidence to prove a crime was committed.”

What’s more, a suspect in the investigation was never actually identified, the paper reported. All five witnesses in the rape report were members of the men’s basketball team. The incident allegedly occurred in McCarthy Hall, which is a dorm where 40 Kansas students live, including all members of the men’s basketball team.

No. 8 Kentucky maturing, more challenges ahead for freshmen

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky coach John Calipari hasn’t hidden his frustration about the learning curve of his latest group of talented freshmen.

And while the No. 8 Wildcats are starting play better, they’re bracing for more challenges ahead.

Kentucky has struggled to put away opponents such as Utah Valley, Vermont, Troy and Harvard, efforts that players and Calipari acknowledge have contributed to a perceived lack of national respect. On the other hand, their lone loss — a 65-61 setback to Kansas — showed their ability to compete with college basketball’s heavyweights.

“It was one of the big games they got to see,” sophomore forward Wenyen Gabriel said. “The feeling and high intensity of the game, people watching, the fight in a big game like that, it really started to hit. Some players really started to get rolling off of that.

“We’re starting to get better as a team, individuals are getting better and we’re trending upward and trying to stay on that path.”

Kentucky (8-1) has begun running away from opponents, a promising trend it hopes to continue against upcoming Power Five conference foes.

Saturday’s home game against Virginia Tech (9-1) opens a daunting year-ending stretch for the Wildcats that includes next weekend’s matchup against UCLA in New Orleans; their annual in-state rivalry showdown against Louisville on Dec. 29; and their Southeastern Conference opener against Georgia on New Year’s Eve.

Though Calipari still hopes February will reveal Kentucky’s true strengths, he’s eager to see how the Wildcats stack up against the Atlantic Coast Conference Hokies, who lead the nation in scoring at 96.2 points per game and rank second in 3-point shooting at 47 percent.

“They have three or four guys that can absolutely make 3s,” Calipari said Friday while listing other Tech strengths. “They’re looking for layups and kicking it out for 3s and they’re getting to the line because of it.

“They’re not afraid. They go on the road in big games. Their home games are craziness. This is plugged into our schedule at a time where we need to learn about us, and we will.”

After a busy November without much practice time, Kentucky has welcomed a lighter December schedule that has allowed the Wildcats more time for workouts and to build chemistry.

The Wildcats have a long way to go, but games such as last week’s 93-76 win over Monmouth are encouraging for Kentucky fans.

Besides continuing their solid shooting — the Wildcats rank 22nd at nearly 51 percent — redshirt freshman guard Hamidou Diallo (23 points) and forward PJ Washington (20) posted career scoring highs against Monmouth. Kentucky also succeeded with a smaller lineup and has been effective playing a zone defense, which Calipari disdains but has used because of his team’s length.

“They’re as long as anybody in the country,” Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams said of Kentucky. “We’ll have to work really hard to get the same shots we’ve been getting.”

Kentucky remains short-handed with freshman forward Jarred Vanderbilt (foot) and guard Jemarl Baker (knee) sidelined by injuries. But the Wildcats appear to be developing depth.

They faced Monmouth without sophomore forward Sacha Killeya-Jones (sprained ankle) before starting guard Quade Green left in the second half after being poked in the eye. Both will be available against the Hokies and return knowing that the bench can fill the void after it combined for a season-high 27 points.

Granted, Monmouth is not a barometer for success against the likes of Tech, UCLA or Louisville. But considering Kentucky’s early struggles, any growth is welcome.

“We think highly of ourselves as a team,” Gabriel added. “I think we deserve more credit than we’re getting, so we’re going to go out there and try to earn it.”

Arizona State rising fast beyond the desert

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TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) — Arizona State has taken college basketball by devilish hurricane, running and gunning its way into the national consciousness while igniting an often-blase local fan base.

Even the Sun Devils’ rivals down south have taken notice.

“Bobby Hurley, he’s en route right now to be one of the coaches talked about for national coach of the year because of what he’s done with their program,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said of the coach of his biggest rival. “He’s played a tough nonconference schedule. It shows some guts to play who they play. Their results speak really clearly. They might be underrated where they’re at right now.”

It wasn’t supposed to be like this, at least not yet.

The Sun Devils were expected to be better in Hurley’s third season in the desert. They returned three senior guards and finally got them some front-court help with the addition of Romello White and De’Quon Lake.

Kodi Justice, ASU’s 6-foot-5 guard, would no longer have to guard 7-footers. Arizona State would be better defensively and on the glass. The guards would not have to carry the entire load.

Even so, the Sun Devils were projected to be at the middle of the Pac-12, picked to finish sixth.

The big jump was supposed to be next season, when a trio of transfers will be eligible and could possibly lead the Sun Devils to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2014.

This breakneck band of Devils spun the narrative forward a year early.

Playing with a confidence bordering on cocky and with an offensive freedom afforded them by their coach, the Sun Devils have pushed their way into the national spotlight.

They made a blip by beating Xavier, No. 15 at the time but now No. 10 in the AP Top 25 . Blew the Musketeers away, actually, turning a 15-point first-half deficit into a 102-86 rout with an onslaught of fast breaks and 3-pointers.

Arizona State next moved into the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2008-09, coming in at No. 20 after the win over Xavier. The Sun Devils climbed four spots the next week.

The catapult launched last Sunday: Arizona State 95, No. 2 Kansas 85. At Allen Fieldhouse.

One of the biggest wins in program history led to another bit of history: A No. 5 ranking this week, ASU’s highest since reaching No. 3 in 1980-81. The Sun Devils even garnered the first No. 1 votes as a program. Five of ’em, actually.

Now Arizona State is 9-0 and being mentioned as a possible national-title contender. Yeah, really.

“I knew the success was going to be better, but you don’t expect necessarily when you look at a schedule to run the table up to this point, and beat the type of teams we’ve beaten,” Hurley said. “So you just appreciate it and then you kind of move on and get ready for the next battle.”

Arizona State’s success starts with its quartet of fearless guards, turning Arizona State into “Guard U.”

With carte blanche from Hurley to shoot from anywhere at almost any time, they’ve gone from carrying the load last season to ferrying the Sun Devils closer to college basketball’s upper echelon.

Tra Holder has transformed himself from steady freshman to unquestioned, sometimes nasty senior floor leader. He scored 40 points against Xavier and leads Arizona State with 21.2 points per game. He also grabs 5.6 rebounds, dishes out 5.2 assists and won consecutive Pac-12 player of the week honors, a first by a Sun Devil since James Harden in 2008.

Shannon Evans II followed Hurley from Buffalo, had to sit out a season as a transfer and was solid as a junior, averaging 15 points per game. The 6-1 guard had become go-to guy 1-A this season, second on the team with 19 points while matching Holder in assists. Big shots? He’s go those, too, including a clutch 3 to kill a Kansas rally in one of the loudest atmospheres in the game.

Justice plays with Pete Maravichian flair, has a range that seems to extend to the opposing team’s free-throw line.

Then there’s Remy Martin. The freshman guard is more spiced rum than cognac, playing with a confidence and intensity well beyond his years.

Martin treats irritation by the opposing team’s point guard as the highest honor, often nodding his bouncy hair in approval when he officially finds his way under their skin. He was the spark off the bench against Kansas, finishing with 21 points and five steals.

“They are now freed up to be who they are more,” Hurley said. “I think they would have shown that on a more regular basis last year if I had done my job a little better and sooner and gotten them some help.”

That help is here and the Sun Devils are running and gunning with it.

Follow John Marshall on Twitter @jmarshallap

Oklahoma State dismisses two players

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STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) — Oklahoma State has dismissed junior Davon Dillard and freshman Zack Dawson from the team for failing to meet unspecified standards set by the program.

Coach Mike Boynton says he could not “make compromises in our core values when it comes to individual players.” Dillard and Dawson were suspended before the season for reasons the school has not disclosed. Dawson missed one game and Dillard missed the first five.

Oklahoma State (7-2) faces No. 19 Florida State (9-0) in Sunrise, Florida, on Saturday.