In warm-ups instead of a Florida Gulf Coast University basketball uniform, Eric McKnight slumped in his chair at the end of the visiting bench at PNC Arena on Tuesday. He could only watch as his team was dismantled by N.C. State in the town where he grew up.
Instead of what should have been a triumphant homecoming after last spring’s miraculous run through the NCAA tournament, McKnight had to sit and watch, serving the sixth game of a minimum six-game suspension for a violation of team rules.
McKnight and the university won’t discuss the violation, but McKnight knows it cost him the chance to play in front of family and friends, including the two N.C. State players who also played at Broughton. (McKnight completed his high-school career at a Maryland prep school.) McKnight and the Eagles played at Duke last year, but this was his chance to return as a Dunk City hero.
“It is very tough,” McKnight said. “It’s my mistake. If I could re-do it, I would do it over again. If I could play N.C. State, I wouldn’t have been as selfish.”
It’s just another lesson in how quickly things can change. Only eight months ago, the 6-foot-9 McKnight was a starting forward for the high-flying team that earned the nickname Dunk City. The Eagles knocked off eventual ACC champion Miami early in the season before upsetting second-seeded Georgetown and seventh-seeded San Diego State in the tournament to become the first No. 15 seed to make it to the Sweet 16.
The run ended there, with a loss to third-seeded Florida – only 3 1/2 hours up I-75 and a world apart in the college-basketball universe – but it was an unforgettable experience for McKnight, who transferred to Florida Gulf Coast from Iowa State in 2011.
“It was great,” said McKnight, now a junior. “I felt like when we were at the tournament, we had a hunger and a drive to win. We had something we wanted to prove. That’s what we have to bring back this year. We had that fire in the tournament.”
Over the summer, coach Andy Enfield left for Southern California and McKnight was suspended. The Eagles return four starters, including McKnight, but recapturing the magic has been difficult in early season blowout losses to Nebraska and, on Tuesday, the Wolfpack.
McKnight likes the offense installed by new coach Joe Dooley – the former East Carolina head coach and most recently a Kansas assistant – because it has more touches for the big men, but Dunk City was out dunked 7-1 by N.C. State on Tuesday. In March, the Eagles were ESPN Top 10 regulars, but Wolfpack center Jordan Vandenberg was No. 9 Tuesday night and Wednesday morning after a one-handed, spinning alley-oop.
Still, no matter what happens now, McKnight was lucky to be a part of a once-in-a-lifetime experience. He’s gone from those highs to these lows, but nothing can take away his citizenship in Dunk City.
“It’s a little bit different now,” McKnight said. “Everybody knows who I am a little bit but at the same time it’s a little bit more pressure now. It’s just something we have to learn from as a team, that everybody knows who we are now. It’s not going to be a walk in the park. It’s not going to be an easy season.”
After the game, in a hallway outside the visiting locker room, N.C. State assistant Bobby Lutz, who coached McKnight at Iowa State, stopped to say hello, along with his wife.
“We’re pulling for you,” Lutz said. “Keep in touch.”
Then McKnight walked off to find his mother and sister, who came to see him, but not to see him play.