There's No "I" in FSW
“We really stress that everybody is equally important. Just have five basketball players on the floor.” Simple words from Florida SouthWestern State women’s basketball coach Dr. Jerald Ellis, but a philosophy practiced and honed by a head coach for more than three decades. And it helps when the team on the floor fully buys in to such an ideology.
“There is no one feature player. They’re all feature players,” Ellis relays proudly.
That path has boosted the Buccaneers to start their 2021-22 season. They’re on a tear, opening the year 8-2, the team rising as high as number 11 in the NJCAA D1 polls. And in their two losses, FSW has battled to the end, including losing by just one in the opener to defending D1 champions Northwest Florida State College on a neutral floor.
“You don’t have to be spectacular in any area. But, competent in all areas,” Ellis says. “We want you to have a high basketball IQ and a skillset that is complementary to that.”
The stats put up by the Buccaneers prove that this complementary approach works. The roster exudes exceptional balance, with six players averaging 20 minutes per game, and 10 players averaging at least double digits in MPG. You find that equity offensively as well, with the team’s top four scorers all averaging within roughly three points of each other. And that team method is intentional.
“Everything we do, we try to do with discipline, in a calculated way,” Ellis points out. “It’s really important for us to tie in our analytics. We like to go deep into the shot clock, we like to make you work, and the numbers are important.”
Those numbers tell an initial story. At first look, the Bucs may seem like stout, down low grinders, evidenced by one of the lowest D1 team totals in three-point attempts. But look deeper: FSW hits 36.5% of its deep balls, good for eighth in D1 for percentage. And while the Buccaneers feature those top four scorers all averaging within approximately three points of each other, it might be four completely different Buccaneers topping the team scoring list come the end of 2021-22.
When asked what makes this team different, Ellis didn’t hesitate. “Unselfishness. They cheer one another. If one of them ends up going six of eight from deep, the team gets excited. But maybe next game, that shooter is the one setting up another.”
On defense, the numbers tell an even more compelling story, one that’s impossible to ignore. Holding opponents to just over 52 points per game, good for 16th best in all of D1, the Buccaneers pressure is stifling.
“We run all half-court man defense,” Ellis describes. “Switch everything. Help like crazy and play angles and lanes.”
That complete team defense has resulted in opponents shooting just 25 percent per contest, an astounding number that is a direct result of the complete team philosophy. And that team balance doesn’t just translate in numbers. It’s a balance that Ellis looks for right from the outset when compiling a roster.
“I walk into a gym and I can tell you who I like,” Ellis explains. “I try to recruit players of similar ability, similar body type; a six-foot multi-skilled player.” Ellis muses at the reputation his recruiting has created.
“It’s been said that if you’re a 6-1 guard, you should look at FSW,” Ellis jokes. “We’ve developed an identity.”
That identity is easily visible in the makeup of the current Bucs roster. Versatile players include forward Jayla Murray, a 6’1 guard-forward shooting nearly 45 percent from the floor, Macarena Retamales, a 6’1 guard shooting 45 percent from the field, and Sariana Rodriguez, a 6’1 guard shooting 43 percent per game. Off the bench, your eye is drawn to Aaliyah Williams, a 5’11 guard who shoots nearly 41 percent per contest. Redundant? Perhaps. Intentional? Absolutely. In fact, all 13 FSW rosters players come in between 5’8 and 6’1. All can handle the ball and all can guard every position.
“Early on in the contest, teams get frustrated with that,” Ellis remarks. “If you look at the floor, you don’t know who the point guard is. As a player, you might catch it up top, you might catch it in the post. Where you want to create a mismatch, you don’t get that from us.” Perhaps more than the pure roster sheet specifications is the player herself Ellis is truly interested in.
“I need to see that they understand how to play. I like their ability, but I like their IQ more,” Ellis details. “What I’ve found in this team fits into that interest. We look for players who can play in motion; high IQ players who can communicate defensively.”
When trying to identify individual players that help drive that style of play, it’s difficult to single any out. The numbers put out by Murray, Retamales, and Rodriguez are impressive, as are those of another 6’0 skilled guard-forward in Tyshonne Tollie, but Ellis once again stresses the importance of complete team performance when asked who might not jump out off of the stat sheet.
“They know that whether I start or come off the bench,” Ellis begins, “I know I’m needed.” Once again outlining his team’s unselfish play, Ellis references freshman guard Natalia Tondi.
“She, above all, is unselfish. Maybe even to a fault,” Ellis quips. “But that’s OK. If she plays 25 minutes and only ends up with two points, she is just fine. She’s smart, in the gym every day, a straight A student.” And that’s even with being late to start this semester as she was playing for her home country of Argentina at the 2021 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup.
Such sentiment becomes more and more apparent with each statement Ellis makes about his team. Instead of letting the philosophy drive the team, he focuses on this team’s ability to make the philosophy work. And that starts with who the players are themselves.
“This is a special group,” Ellis declares. “And not just great basketball players; they’re special kids. You’d want them to come home and play with your kids. They’re special people and you feel it.”
While Florida SouthWestern State didn’t factor in to last year’s NJCAA tournament, it’s hard to imagine they’re flying under the radar any more after their start to this year’s campaign. And while a start like this may come as a surprise to some, Dr. Ellis knew a year like this could be coming.
“This team I expected to be special,” he responds.
And the team might start believing it, too. Ellis talks about taking the former champions Northwest Florida State to the brink in the season kick-off.
“One more rebound; one fewer turnover,” Ellis remembers when hanging in there with the best. “Why not you?”
As the season rolls on, the players of Florida SouthWestern might be asking themselves the same question.
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