The NCAA tournament is the rare occasion when 64 teams get to compete on an equal stage. It’s a golden opportunity for overlooked players on underdog teams to make a statement on a national level.
Consider Kierstan Bell’s participation in this year’s tournament a mic check.
Over the course of this abbreviated college basketball season, the Florida Gulf Coast star has established herself as one of the best players in the country. A 6-foot-1 sophomore guard, Bell ranks fifth in the nation in scoring at 24.3 points per game and made history in the Atlantic Sun (ASUN) Conference as the first player to be named both player of the year and newcomer of the year in the same season. On Wednesday, she was named an AP Honorable Mention All-American.
Bell’s game is tailor-made for a national audience. She flashes her athleticism when she’s pulling down rebounds in traffic, uses her size to finish strong at the rim, and often flexes her right arm after a bucket to remind the defense of what just hit them. A tattoo on her right arm reads: “Humble Beast.”
Bell can score from just about anywhere and has the green light every time she steps on the court. Her game is as versatile as her hair color, which can alternate between red, blue and green.
In large part because of Bell, Florida Gulf Coast is one of the most intriguing teams in the NCAA tournament. And it’s ready for the spotlight. The No. 11-seeded Eagles will face No. 6 seed Michigan (3 p.m., ESPN2) in the first round on Sunday.
“It’s going to be a good opportunity to show the world what we can do,” Bell said.
For Bell, it’s also an opportunity to show her decision to transfer from a Power 5 school paid off.
Bell received national attention as a high school standout, where she emerged as one of the most dominant players in Ohio state basketball history. While playing for Canton McKinley High School, Bell picked up the nickname “She-Bron,” after NBA star and fellow Ohio native LeBron James.
“I grew up watching LeBron, always had posters of LeBron in my room,” said Bell, whose Twitter bio reads “just a kid from Alliance.” “I think I play like LeBron a little bit. Shoot the midrange, shoot the 3, I can get to the rack whenever I want to.”
James even attended one of Bell’s games during her junior season. With her basketball idol in attendance, Bell scored 38 points, and added eight rebounds and five steals. James and Bell are the only two players in state history to be named Mr. or Ms. Ohio Basketball three times.
In 2019, Bell began her collegiate career at Ohio State University, a feat she said is a dream for any aspiring hooper in the state. But after a single season at Ohio State, in which she was selected Honorable Mention All-Big Ten, Bell announced in March 2020 that she had entered the transfer portal.
Bell would become one of the most sought-after transfer prospects in the offseason. She said she received interest from other Big Ten schools, but had little desire to join another Power 5 school.
“I didn’t want to be at a big school,” Bell said. “I wanted to … be at a mid-major.”
Bell narrowed her search after she decided she wanted to follow her family, who was planning to move to Florida. It was her uncle, who had lived in the Fort Myers, Florida, area for a few years, who recommended she check out FGCU, the mid-major that has dominated the ASUN conference over the past decade, winning seven of the last 10 conference championships.
Bell met with longtime FGCU head coach Karl Smesko, who was upfront with the recruit about what FGCU could offer her. It wasn’t the promise of a made-for-Instagram locker room, gear or travel.
“When you’re dealing with somebody who is not only a BCS player, but you think could be a WNBA talent, you try not to get too excited too quickly, because usually these things don’t work out,” Smesko said. “They end up going to another BCS school.”
Smesko discussed how he thought he could help Bell take her game to the next level. He also challenged Bell and told her it would depend on how much she was willing to work.
That wouldn’t be a problem for Bell.
When Bell was a kid growing up in Alliance, Ohio, her skill level placed her on teams with players four years older as early as the second grade. She could always be found at the local park getting up shots, staying out so long that by night’s end her mom would find her passed out by the streetlight.
“My mom was always coming to pick me up,” Bell said. “I had so much love for the game, I just wanted to be playing basketball.”
Bell committed to FGCU, making her the highest-rated recruit in program history. Smesko knew his program had landed a game-changing talent.
It didn’t take long for him to realize she was even better than he had anticipated.
During Bell’s first one-on-one workouts in September, Smesko wanted to show her a few finishing moves at the rim, using the exercise to gauge how she processed information. Smesko would demonstrate the footwork to Bell and within minutes Bell would be able to perform the moves at game speed.
“You could see it kind of working in her mind,” Smesko said. “Something that usually takes a lot of time for someone to pick up originally and to have the footwork down perfectly, she was able to mentally put her body through it. … I really hadn’t seen that [before].”
Within the first practices of the season, Smesko laid out a plan that he believed would elevate her game to the next level. The plan focused on her efficiency. If Bell could follow the plan, he thought, she would become one of the most efficient players in the country.
“She seemed to really buy into that,” Smesko said.
Bell didn’t just become one of the most efficient players in the country but, statistically speaking, she is the most efficient player in the country. Bell’s 45.2 player efficiency rating this season leads the country and is a top-five player efficiency rating for any player in the last five seasons, according to Her Hoop Stats.
“When you’re as big, strong, athletic, fast and you are also able to think quicker than everyone else on the court – that was something where when the coaches were watching film, we were like, ‘Wow, this is someone who has the capability of being really special.’ At that time we were saying first-round WNBA pick, but she could be right at the top of the first round the way she is developing.”
While Bell’s physical displays of dominance are what ultimately fill a stat sheet, Smesko credits a sizable portion of that on-court success to Bell’s basketball IQ.
“She has the ability to recognize situations faster than anyone else,” Smesko said. “She’s cognitively quicker and on top of that she’s an explosive athlete. When you put those things together, it makes it really hard to contain her.”
“She’s a really smart player,” said teammate and fellow FGCU transfer guard Tishara Morehouse. “She’s aware of where to be on the floor, and knows where to be at all times.”
It took Bell just 26 games to begin to rewrite the FGCU record books. This season she was a six-time ASUN Player of the Week, the first player in program history to record a 20-20 game and the first player to score 600 points in a single season. She also set single-season records in consecutive double-doubles, single-season double-doubles and single-game scoring.
Florida Gulf Coast enters the tournament with a 26-2 record, the No. 24 ranking in the country and winners of its last 25 games – the longest winning streak in the country. Both of the Eagles’ losses came to ranked opponents (No. 20 Missouri State and No. 15 Arkansas) and both games were played without Bell, who had yet to receive a transfer waiver.
The team is led by Bell and Morehouse, who is averaging 17.7 points per game. The duo, dubbed “Lightning and Thunder,” is one of the premier backcourts in the nation and leads the fifth-best scoring offense in the country with an identity defined by the 3-pointer. FGCU has attempted and made more 3s than any other team in college basketball this season.
Bell, who will be playing in her first NCAA tournament after being robbed of an appearance last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, is confident the Eagles can break their program’s best mark of a second-round finish in the tournament.
“I think it’s going to be a great experience,” Bell said. “I think we can make it pretty far.”
Bell’s talent is one fit for an arena playing host to tens of thousands. Instead, she has spent the past year playing at Alico Arena, which houses a maximum capacity of just over 4,600. (Due to the pandemic, she played in front of home crowds that were less than a thousand people.)
But Bell isn’t worried about the buzz she may have generated at a larger program.
“I’m comfortable here. I love it here. I’m glad I made this decision,” Bell said. “I don’t really care for the hype. I just want to be great.”