If you consider where the FIU men's basketball team was a year ago, the turnaround this season under first-year coach Richard Pitino has been remarkable.
With just three returning players from last season and with just three weeks to recruit a team after Pitino was hired, the Panthers have completely flipped the 2012-13 season from what FIU basketball was a year ago.
Just look at the numbers: FIU is currently 15-12 overall and 10-8 in the Sun Belt. Last year after 27 games, FIU was 7-20 overall and 4-11 in the conference.
With the Panthers home schedule completed last night in the win over UALR, in which Cameron Bell (above) had 17 points, FIU finished the 2012-13 home season with a 10-3 record at the FIU arena. Last year, FIU went 2-9 at home. Yes, the larger home crowds with each passing game this season have certainly helped, but there's more to it.
"We were rebuilding this thing from scratch," Pitino said last night after the UALR win. "We had three leftover players and it was a tough situation at first. Whenever you are rebuilding a program it starts with the players. I think you have to build a fan base. Everybody told me when I took this job that nobody cared about basketball. They are not going to come to your games and my response to them is they never have won. They never have played at the level that I am hoping to play at. It’s good to see results. It’s good to see them get rewarded. We’re certainly not where we need to be, but I’m happy for these guys that they get to play in front of a good environment.”
The Panthers have produced and given the home fans reasons to keep coming back.
"I think this team is the epitome of no ego," Pitino said. "Not one guy thinks he is better than what they are. They almost embrace the fact that we’re small and half the guys we recruited, nobody recruited them because they were available so late. So they have a chip on their shoulder. They know who they are. They take every opponent very seriously. They respect every opponent and I sincerely mean this, they have not had one bad practice. We even had shootarounds where I have had to stop it because they were practicing so hard. I had a guy tell me earlier 'Let’s go four more minutes.' I said, 'We’ve got a game tonight, relax.' They just love to play. I’m not sure if I’ll ever have another team like this because they are fun to coach because there are no egos, no issues whatsoever.”
The 15 wins this season are the most by a Panther team since the 1999-2000 season when FIU went 16-14. The FIU record for wins in a season is 21 by the 1997-98 team that featured future NBA players, Carlos Arroyo and Raja Bell. With Thursday's win, the Panthers also assured their first winning season since 1999-2000.
The Panthers' 10 conference victories this season are the most for FIU since joining the Sun Belt Conference in 1998-1999. The previous record for Sun Belt wins for FIU had been nine by the 1999-2000 team.
FIU has also positioned itself for a first round bye at the Sun Belt Conference Tournament in Hot Springs, Arkansas, which begins March 8. The Panthers need to win their final two regular season games at ULM and at Florida Atlantic to ensure the first round bye.
With a first round bye, FIU would only be two wins from playing in the SBC Championship Game with a bid to the NCAA Tournament on the line. When was the last time you ever read or even thought about that previous sentence in regards to FIU basketball?
As of this morning, FIU (10-8 in Sun Belt) is battling UALR (9-8) and WKU (8-9) for either the No. 4 or No. 5 seed in the tournament. Both the No. 4 & No. 5 seeds get first round byes and face each other in the second round of the SBC tournament. Right now, FIU is No. 4 with UALR at No. 5 and WKU at No. 6. FIU split the season series with each team.