Ok, raise your hand if back in November you had FIU playing in the Sun Belt Championship Game tonight at 7 p.m.?
No one. That's what I figured. Hey, I'm not blaming you. I was there with you. I thought FIU would have been successful this season if the Panthers would play close to or at .500 ball and maybe win one game in the conference tournament. I mean it's been a lonnnnnnnnnnnng while since we've seen as successful an FIU basketball season as this one.
Regardless of what happens tonight in the SBC Championship against WKU, the Panthers and coach Richard Pitino have this program pointed in the right direction through sheer will.
Remember, Pitino and his coaching staff were hired with just a few weeks to put a team together. Imagine what Pitino and his coaching staff can do with a year's worth of recruiting.
Upon being hired, Pitino inherited three scholarship players and five players, who transferred not wanting to give the new FIU coach a chance. I'm guessing those guys are probably at the WhatMightHaveBeen Club right next to Shelley Long, who left Cheers; Decca Records, who rejected the Beatles; Ross Perot, who turned down a chance to buy Microsoft in 1979, and the Portland Trail Blazers, who drafted Sam Bowie with the No. 2 pick instead of some guy named Michael Jordan.
For the first time since 1998 and for the first time in its Sun Belt history and ironically its last Sun Belt season, FIU will play for a conference basketball championship tonight. Fifteen years ago, FIU last played for a conference championship. That was against the College of Charleston for the TAAC Championship. FIU lost 72-63. FIU's only conference basketball championship came in 1995 when it won the TAAC defeating Mercer 68-57 and advanced to the NCAA Tournament against UCLA in Boise, Idaho. Just for kicks looking ahead, should FIU win tonight, there is a chance the Panthers could meet possible No. 1 seed Louisville in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. (Pitino vs. Pitino, again)
The 2012-13 Panthers team really started coming together when the calendar turned to 2013. FIU won seven of eight games to start the new year, including finishing a sweep of what was the No. 2 seed Arkansas State. The Panthers lost a heartbreaker on a last second shot to Middle Tennessee in Miami, but rallied to win five of the next seven games, including knocking off tonight's opponent, WKU 87-82 at FIU. The Panthers showed resiliency in bouncing back from the tough loss to the Blue Raiders to finish strong in the latter portion of the regular season.
For good measure, FIU took out a much bigger team in UALR and Middle Tennessee in the first two games of the SBC Tournament. The Blue Raiders had a nation's best 17-game win streak snapped by FIU and were 19-1 in SBC play this season.
The Panthers have had this remarkable turnaround season because of actual team play -- not a cliche' here -- and quality coaching.
Yes, Tymell Murphy, Malik Smith and Jerome Frink have done the bulk of the scoring, but it's never the same guy night in and night out like most teams. In many games this season different players have contributed. Murphy's athleticism and energy have surely helped as has Smith's pinpoint shooting and Frink's ability to score from the outside and inside.
Deric Hill and Cameron Bell solidified what was a concern starting the season -- guard play. Hill, who was an afterthought last season as a walk-on from South Miami, has been a defensive menace this season and his steady play offensively at the point really helped down the stretch. Bell gave the Panthers a veteran presence and some accurate shooting.
Tola Akomolafe, Marco Porcher-Jimenez, Juan Ferrales, Gaby Belardo and Ivan Jurkovic were all invaluable off the bench and gave Pitino plenty of options with regard to lineups and matchups depending on the flow of the game.
For the nearly 10 years I covered FIU for the Miami Herald, I would tell you that FIU spring football and baseball seasons could never get here fast enough in the early part of a new year. But this year, this FIU team has made it refreshing to follow basketball again. And again, regardless of tonight's result, the "changing of the culture" as Pitino likes to say, is just beginning for FIU basketball.