In this week’s coaching conversation, Florida Gulf Coast head coach Karl Smesko joins the Basketball Podcast to discuss his offensive system, shooting psychology and the things that helped him become one of the most successful coaches in women’s college basketball history.
Karl Smesko’s resume sits among the best all-time in NCAA Division I women’s basketball as he enters his 22nd season on the sideline in 2020-21, including his 19th with the Green and Blue.
On pace to reach 600 career wins faster than legendary coaches such as Pat Summitt and Tara VanDerveer, Smesko has compiled a 554-122 record (.820) in his career, which ranks him as the third-winningest active Division I head coach behind Geno Auriemma (1,091-142, .885) and Kim Mulkey (604-101, .857). Furthermore, he passed VanDerveer (1,094-253, .812) in 2017-18 to become the fifth-winningest Division I head coach of all-time – behind Auriemma, Leon Barmore (576-87, .869), Mulkey and Summit (1,098-208, .841). If that isn’t enough, he is the 10th-winningest active head coach across all divisions, as well as the 12th-winningest such coach all-time.
Karl Smesko has the Eagles on pace to shatter the NCAA’s all-time Division I winning percentage record by the end of the 2020-21 season as his team is one of only two in the nation along with Tennessee (.801) with at least an .800 all-time winning percentage. In fact, FGCU is 493-95 (.838) since the program’s inception in 2002-03, which is easily the best winning percentage in the nation and also ahead of third-place UConn (.795), but the NCAA requires at least 10 years as a Division I program, and FGCU’s four reclassification years (2007-11) do not count towards the 10-year minimum. Thus, Smesko and the Green and Blue will have to wait just a little longer to be recognized as the winningest Division I women’s basketball program in NCAA history.
Over the past six seasons, Karl Smesko has guided FGCU to 179 wins, which is the most among all mid-majors and seventh-most among any Division I program – behind UConn (212), Baylor (200), Mississippi State (186), Notre Dame (185), South Carolina (184) and Maryland (180). In fact, it puts them ahead of schools such as Louisville (178), Stanford (167), Oregon State (165) and Oregon (157). On top of that, the program is one of only five in the nation at the Division I level with four 30-win seasons during that stretch – joining UConn, Baylor, Notre Dame and South Carolina.
Karl Smesko has also produced a level of sustained success matched by only three other Division I schools as he has guided the Eagles to 10 straight 25-win seasons – an accomplishment only achieved by UConn and Baylor. He has also achieved 16-straight 20-win seasons with the Green and Blue dating back to 2004-05.
Karl Smesko Quotes:
“We’ve been pretty committed to shooting threes. We thought it was a great way for us to compete. So it’s always been a big part of our offense, we always look to push the ball and work together to create good catch and shoot three opportunities.”
“I just believed in having more ball handlers on the floor, and I believed in having more shooting on the floor. We play five guards and spread the floor and learn how to screen and cut and work together and penetrate and pitch out for three . . the more ball handlers and good decision makers you have, the better; you’re more likely to get higher return shots.”
“Our first law of basketball dynamics is being able to create the most usable space. So we make a pass, and then we make a cut, to score or how do we create more space for the ball? And where can we pass the ball where that person will have the most space to utilize? We’re trying to create as many close outs as possible.”
“The other advantage we’re looking for is a talent advantage. If we see we have a talented advantage, we’d like to get that person into space and into a close out, and we like it to occur naturally. So our players think and work together to create the situations and it’s not something that has to come from the sideline where we have to call play to make it happen.”
“We do emphasize shot selection a great deal. And part of shot selection is we want you to be ready to shoot it every time you catch it. And if you have a good shot, we want you to take it. The first really good shot we get we want to take.”
“Hopefully, we can get a shot off that first action. But if not, at least we’ve started moving and forcing the defense to respond to that movement.”
“We want to have some movement where each pass we make has the possibility to create offense and attack into space. So, having that patience when you’re away from the ball and you’re holding the width. We don’t want the player leaving the width, just because they want to get closer to the ball. You’re doing something really good for us if you’re occupying your defender and they’re out of the lane.”
“When you attack, we’re going to be moving and working together to give you options in case your attack wasn’t successful in creating an advantage. We don’t just want to shoot heavily contested layups or shots around the rim, we want to be with an advantage of some sort. And then our shots at the three point line, we want to be with the space and of the catch and shoot variety. Obviously, teams don’t want to give up those shots, so you have to really work to create those shots.”
“If you go from a 28%, three point shooter to a 32%, three point shooter, it’s a big difference. If you go from 32 to 36, that’s going from average to good in our program. And if you go from 36 to 40, that’s going from good to excellent. And we try to get our players to understand that, really, that’s only one more make out of 25. Some of this can be shot selection.”
“We try to make shots as simple as possible. We don’t want a lot of extra movement, we don’t want the ball away from your body while you’re trying to do it. We want you to be in a position to be as strong as possible when you’re going to shoot the ball.”
“We run a very basic transition. It’s really about how quickly can you get it down the floor? And then what decisions do you make . . we want to pass people if we can, but it really comes down to can you make the right decision at the speed you’re playing. And we want to play fast and make good decisions.”
“We create maximum spacing, conversion, and then we read the defense. If the defense is jamming up the paint, we’re not attacking the paint, we’re moving the ball and flowing right into offense. If they’re spread out, taking away our three point shooters and we have a chance to attack the paint, we’ll try to attack the paint under control, or maybe even get all the way to the rim.The concepts are really, really simple. It all depends on our players’ ability to make decisions.”
“I feel like sometimes coaches underestimate the ability to work with somebody and make them at least have to be respected at the three point line. If you think about it, if they’re completely unguarded, they can have their feet set . . if they can make three out of 10 threes completely unguarded by themselves, it’s still pretty efficient, especially if you can get one offensive rebound in that situation on those seven misses. Even if they make two out of 10 and you’re able to get an offensive rebound for a score, it’s something that you can live with.”
“We don’t do a lot of trapping or a lot of pressing or a lot of gambling, but we are aggressive . . we’re trying to force turnovers, get deflections, maintain gap integrity, but have good vision of the ball and be able to act on the ball quickly. The more turnovers we can force leads us to our transition game and easy baskets.”
“A lot of people put together a 15-page scouting report . . We’ve tried to focus on things that we could fit on one page or a page and a half, with the most important information for us to be successful in that game. And that involves knowing: How do their best players like to score? What is this team really good at? What do they try to hurt you with? What are the most important concepts for us to focus on this game to win? And if there’s 50 concepts that we need to focus on to win, we’re probably not going to. So we try to make it . . the five or six most important things we have to know about their personnel.”
Karl Smesko Breakdown:
1:00 – 3-Point Shooting Philosophy
4:30 – Isolation and Space
7:00 – Knowing Own Strengths
10:00 – Getting Players in Space and Attack
13:00 – Ideas on Horizontal and Vertical Spacing
16:30 – Drive to Score
19:30 – The Concept of Waiting
23:00 – Convergence Concept
27:00 – Incorporating Stars on his Philosophy
29:00 – Player Development
33:00 – Isolated Skills Training for Shooting
37:00 – Art of Coaching
40:00 – Importance of Shot Release
44:00 – 3-Point Shooting
48:30 – Offensive Rebounding
51:00 – Turnover Battle
54:00 – Hiring Former Players as Assistants
57:00 – Advice for Other Coaches
Karl Smesko Links from the Podcast:
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