Do you want to know what's the biggest difference in the FIU men's basketball team this season compared to FIU basketball teams from the last decade-plus? This season the Panthers are learning from their mistakes and applying what they learn in their next game.
After the tough loss to Middle Tennessee on a last second shot on Jan. 31, FIU coach Richard Pitino put his team in perspective.
"I went home and I thought about it and these guys are basically all freshmen," Pitino said of his team. "None of them have played college basketball the way that we play. The guys that were here last year hardly played. The other guys were in junior college and the other guys are freshmen. They have nothing to look back at in reference. So during a timeout, we can now reference what we did against Middle and we can talk about that; don’t lose your heads like we did against Middle."
If you recall in that game against the Blue Raiders, the Panthers lost a 20-point lead before the eventual game-winning shot by Middle. Go back to last night's game against Florida Atlantic, FIU had a 20-point lead and unlike the Blue Raiders game, the Panthers did not let the Owls get back in the game. FIU closed out FAU by keeping its composure, playing defense and knocking down quality shots to stymie any hope for the Owls.
In the loss to Middle, Pitino wasn't happy with the shot selection when the Panthers held that 20-point lead in the second half. FIU hoisted three-point attempts that were not quality shots and missing those shots helped the Blue Raiders rally to the win. To use an example -- and I'm not singling him out -- Malik Smith was one of those players shooting the ill-advised threes. However, in the next game against ULM, Smith took better shots, including the game-winning layup just before the final buzzer. Smith pump-faked a three-point try and drove to the rim for the layup and 1.
During my nearly 10 years as the FIU beat writer for the Miami Herald, I saw a lot of not-so-good FIU basketball and not many adjustments or learning from mistakes for the Panthers over the years. What a refreshing sight it is to watch FIU basketball this season and seeing a team develop with quality coaching and actual team play. And I think the FIU faithful will agree with me at least judging by the attendance and energy at FIU basketball games this season.
Last night was a perfect example with the largest crowd of the season, more than 1,500 in the arena, and actual cheering and noise coming from those in attendance -- including the usually quiet student body getting into the game.
Add to it the tailgating before the last three home games, the return of FIU football alums in the NFL (see the post below this one) and another award-winning performance from the Golden Dazzlers (photos below) and FIU basketball is turning into the place to be.
I read a lot on Twitter leading up to Thursday's game of people asking other people about the FIU basketball game and what time they were getting there. Which brings to mind another quote from Pitino on changing the culture of FIU basketball.
"Our goal was in every home game whether it’s diving on a loose ball or taking a charge, that may get you five or six more people in the stands," Pitino said of what he told his team about changing the culture of FIU basketball. "Then they talk to other people about you and then they talk to other people and I think we’ve been able to do that -- to change that culture by doing it through hard work.”
A couple of numbers to consider in the Panthers' final six regular season games (Next home game being next Saturday, Feb. 16 vs. WKU at 7:30 p.m.). FIU is currently 13-10 and 8-6 in the Sun Belt Conference. The last time FIU basketball had a winning season was in 1999-2000 with a 16-14 record and that same season FIU won 9 Sun Belt games -- the most it has won in the Sun Belt in the Panthers' time in that conference.
The Panthers need just three wins to match that overall win total and to finish with a winning record for the first time in 13 years. FIU needs just one more win to equal the most wins its had in its Sun Belt history -- which this is the final season in the conference before moving to Conference USA.
And to think the Panthers, Pitino and his coaching staff have done this with an undersized, "freshmen" team and with just about a month to recruit for this season after the FIU coach was hired. Imagine the possibilities for the Panthers with a year in the system and a full year of recruiting. The future is bright for the FIU basketball program.
And speaking of bright, here are some images from the Dazzlers' award-winning, critically-acclaimed "Cowgirls" performance from last night. CLICK HERE for the photo gallery by FIU's award-winning photographer Alex J. Hernandez.