Basketball was king this past year in Southern Florida. The Miami Heat won their second title in a row while the kids from the U finished off one of the best seasons in school history winning the ACC. Lost with these two stories, FIU had its first winning season since the year 2000. The Panthers looked poised to enter the new Conference-USA with 4 of their best players returning and an up-and-coming young coach with name recognition in Richard Pitino at the helm. That optimism dimmed significantly when Pitino bolted for a Big Ten job at Minnesota and took the team's second-leading scorer with him. Here's a look at newcomer FIU and their chances this year:
1 NCAA Tournament appearance (1995)
0-1 NCAA Tournament record
The Golden Panthers have won 20+ games only twice in their 31 year men's basketball history. Those 20 win campaigns came in 1993 and 1998 respectively, but neither year was rewarded with an NCAA Tourney or NIT berth. The default best year for FIU has to be the year of their only NCAA Tournament appearance, 1995. In that year, the Panthers finished in 9th place in the Trans American Athletic Conference (today known as the Atlantic Sun) but caught fire in the conference tournament to win the automatic bid.
Last NCAA Tournament Appearance
As mentioned above, in 1995 FIU won their automatic bid despite finishing in 9th place in their conference. They wound up with a 16-seed and drew overall #1 seed and eventual national champions UCLA. The Panthers were punished in their only Big Dance appearance 92-56 and finished the year with an overall record of 11-19.
1993-2000 Key word here is "stretch," as in it is a stretch to call any handful of years in FIU basketball "good." The 90's saw pretty decent basketball from FIU as the Panthers had winning seasons in 4 of the 8 seasons from 93 to 2000. In fact, their worst season in terms of winning percentage in that stretch happens to be the one year they made it to the NCAA Tournament.
Carlos Arroyo (1997-2001), Raja Bell (1997-1999), Dwight Stewart (1988-1993)
U.S. Century Bank Arena, Capacity 5,000
2012-2013 Avg Attendance: 1,071
Anthony Evans, 1st year. There was a good piece on Evans written by ESPN's Andy Katz when he initially got hired. Evans is the third head coach for the program in 3 years. He will try to find success at a place where few coaches have found it. Miner aficionados may recall that FIU is the place where former Miner assistant Sergio Rouco (known as a key recruiter for Gillespie) got his first head coaching shot. In 5 years Rouco never had a winning season. Then it was NBA great Isiah Thomas's turn. He lasted 3 seasons and was let go after an abysmal 8-21 campaign in 2011. Last year, Rick Pitino's son Richard Pitino took over and worked wonders in year 1, winning 18 games and taking the Panthers all the way to the Sun Belt title game. Anthony Evans knows about winning at schools where it's tough to build success though. His Norfolk State Spartans were a force in the MEAC the past few seasons and most notably upset Missouri in the NCAA Tournament two years ago. FIU, even with its lack of basketball tradition, is still a mighty step up in terms of resources for Evans. We'll see what this up-and-coming coach can do at a bigger school in a bigger conference.
18-14 overall, 11-9 in Sun Belt play
The Panthers went from being an awful 8-win team to being a competitive Sun Belt squad that peaked at almost the right moment last season. The Panthers alternated wins and losses in conference play throughout the season, but a February win against Western Kentucky at home set them on a run that almost culminated with their second NCAA Tournament appearance ever. The Panthers beat heavy favorite and regular season champ Middle Tennessee in the semifinals by 4, but then lost to Western Kentucky by 2 in the title game.
2013-2014 Prospective Roster
G - Deric Hill, 5'9 JR
G - Marco Porcher Jimenez, 6'4 JR
F - Tymell Murphy, 6'5 SR
F - Jerome Frink, 6'6 SO
C - Ivan Jurkovic, 7'0 SR
C - Joey De La Rosa, 6'11 JR
G - Juan Ferrales, 6'2 JR
G - Dee Lewis, 6'3 SO
G - Jaquan Lynch, 6'0 FR
Had Coach Richard Pitino stayed on at FIU, the Panthers would merit serious consideration as a dark horse contender in C-USA. They would've had 5 of their top 6 scorers back in year 2 of a proven system. As things go in Mid-Major Land though, Pitino bolted to Minnesota and took key shooting guard Malik Smith with him. The cupboard is not bare for Coach Evans though. Forward Tymell Murphy was the leading scorer (slightly) in the Panthers' balanced attack last year and returns for his senior year. Forward Jerome Frink had one of the best freshman seasons ever as a Panther and could become a special player for FIU. Between those two guys, the Panthers have 24.8 ppg and 13.1 rpg returning to the lineup. Tiny point guard Deric Hill led the team in assists per game as a sophomore and will look to continue that as a likely starter. The Panthers will really need one of their two junior guards, Marco Porcher Jimenez or Juan Ferrales, to step up their game in Malik Smith's absence. Smith made an FIU record 96 three pointers last season and both Porcher Jimenez and Ferrales had a slightly higher 3-point shooting percentage than Smith. We'll see if that percentage holds up with many more shots. Jurkovic and De La Rosa will likely share time as the man in the middle.
The Panthers will be an interesting team to watch in C-USA this season. They have some considerable talent returning and would likely still be one of the favorites had they stayed in the Sun Belt. They have a solid yet undersized pair of forwards and point guard. If one of their other guards can make 3's and stretch out the floor, the Panthers could be a very tricky opponent for the Miners and the rest of the C-USA favorites. Anthony Evans worked wonders with few resources at Norfolk State. He has a wonderful opportunity for himself in Miami now and in the coming years.