Couple of frosh faces helping Eagles fill void left by Cheatham

FGCU freshman and Cape Coral product Caleb Catto (2) has seen his minutes increase in recent games. LINWOOD FERGUSON

BY MATT ROTHMAN
SPECIAL TO CSI

It’s been a rough start to the season for the Florida Gulf Coast University men’s basketball team. That’s no secret.

This is a program that is not familiar with losing much, but FGCU has gone through lots of that. The team came into the season with a first-year head coach, an entirely new starting lineup and quickly suffered a six-game losing streak. Compounding matters, the Eagles recently lost preseason all-Atlantic Sun Conference selection Haanif Cheatham for the season following shoulder surgery. 

Cheatham, who led FGCU (5-10) in scoring at nearly 14 points per game, had an on-going issue with his shoulder that — according to coach Michael Fly — was not getting better. The former Marquette Golden Eagles star (who won their best defensive player award his first two years) will not use this season as a redshirt. Instead, Cheatham hopes to play professionally next season. 

“Hani, being our leading scorer, and being our only preseason all-conference selection and being one of our most experienced guys, that is hard to handle,” said Fly, whose Eagles open their ASUN schedule Saturday night at home against first-year conference foe Liberty. “In fairness to Hani, he was trying to play through an injury (since) Day 1 and I thought he battled it out and tried to get through it. It’s unfortunate when you lose such a key piece that he was, but we always say you got to have that next man up mentality.”

Zach Scott said he prepared himself early on this season to step in and contribute when called upon. LINWOOD FERGUSON

Two players — check that, two true freshman players — have stepped up: Zach Scott and Caleb Catto.

Scott, a Miami native who is averaging 7.3 points per game, had a career day in FGCU’s tense (to say the least) victory over NAIA program Keiser University on Dec. 19. He scored 25 points, going 6 of 8 from 3-point range, in that 87-85 home win. His 48 percent clip from 3-point range leads the Eagles.

“Coach always says have the next guy up mentality and that is sort of what I did,” said Scott, who arrived at FGCU via Westminster Academy. “Obviously you don’t want to see a player go down, but I just started preparing myself early. My teammates actually helped me, too.

“Decardo (Day) and Schadrac (Casimir) have helped me the whole season. They give me tips, tell me what to do, what I should work on. It has really been helpful and I look up to those two. I really enjoy when they teach me.”

Catto, a local product who graduated from Southwest Florida Christian Academy, has seen his minutes increase of late — he’s played at least 20 in each of the past three games. His 12 points against Keiser were also a career high. What has stood out from a coach’s perspective, according to Fly, has been Catto’s ability to get to the rim. 

The loss of Cheatham notwithstanding, the Eagles seem to finally be healthy as forwards RaySean Scott (6-foot-7) and Brian Thomas (6-9) are back and contributing. Scott, a junior, had a season-high 18 points in last Saturday’s 87-57 loss at Ole Miss. It was his fourth time scoring in double figures this season — he’s averaging 9.8 points per game. 

Casimir (11.5 ppg) is the only active Eagle averaging double-digit scoring this season. He’s second on the team in 3-point shooting (46 percent) and had a season-high 24 points against Oral Roberts.

Day continues to provide quality minutes off the bench after coming back from a short suspension earlier this season.

After a trying non-conference slate, the road doesn’t get much easier for the Eagles. In years past, FGCU has dominated the ASUN, but there are some up-and-coming teams within the conference. 

Reigning ASUN tournament champion Lipscomb enters ASUN play with a 9-4 record. The Bisons’ biggest win came at No. 18 TCU — the 73-64 triumph on Nov. 20 was their first-ever victory over a ranked opponent. 

Liberty (11-4) has hit the ground running in its inaugural ASUN season. Just one week ago, the Flames stunned UCLA, 73-58, (inside Pauley Pavilion no less) in what turned out to be the final game for Bruins coach Steve Alford.

The most surprising team in the ASUN has to be New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT). The Highlanders (12-3) received a vote in the AP Top 25 last month and lead the ASUN in wins.

“You always pay attention to the teams in your conference,” Fly said. “This is a very different league than it has been the last four or five years. We were fortunate in that for the last five years we were returning a ton of players every year that had a lot of experience. I think the league is a lot like when it was when I first got in the league now. It was a total toss-up. Even the year we made the Sweet 16 (2013), we didn’t win the league. I think the league is back to that.”