Kevin Castaneda/staff writer
On Oct. 24, the Sun Belt Conference Coaches’ Poll for men’s basketball was released. The coaches picked FIU to finish second to last in the SBC and dead last in the East Division.
Head Coach Richard Pitino shrugged off the preseason prediction and went to work with his hard-nosed team. The first-year head coach and young roster defied all expectations as they ended the season above .500, securing the No.4 seed for the SBC Tournament.
“People in our league didn’t have high expectations for us, I don’t think anyone did. But that was justified,” Pitino said. “I thought the guys really exceeded expectations in the regular season.”
The Panthers finished the regular season with a 16-13 overall record and 11-9 in SBC play. The last time the Panthers had 16 wins was during the 1999-2000 season, when the team went 16-14 under Head Coach Shakey Rodriguez.
Even more impressive, is that FIU finished their season with a 10-3 home record. The 10 wins at the U.S. Century Bank Arena this year is the most the team has had since the 1999-2000 season, when the Panthers went 10-6.
“It’s just the mentality of playing at home” said Pitino. “It’s better to play in front of your own fans. Our guys saw each game the crowds getting bigger and bigger. They didn’t want to let the fans down that decided to come.”
Pitino does not like singling out one player on his roster as the best. Even with his reluctance to name a star, a few names really stood out this season.
The first player to jump off the stat sheet is sophomore Tymell Murphy. The 6-foot-5 forward averaged just above 15 points and nearly seven rebounds a game. Besides those statistics being team-highs, he finished the season ranked seventh in the SBC in points per game and sixth in rebounds per game.
Murphy not only ended the year with seven double-doubles, but scored in double-digits in 20 consecutive games. The most incredible part about Murphy’s ability to score was his efficiency. He shot 58 percent from the field which ranked him first in the SBC and eighth in the nation.
“You got four categories where he’s top 10 [in the conference]. He did a little bit of everything, he had a great year for us,” said Pitino. “When things broke down he was able to get things done for us. I would say he’s definitely just scratching the surface.”
It is difficult to follow up what Murphy did, but Jerome Frink sure added a punch to the Panther lineup. The freshman finished the season third in scoring and second in rebounds for the Panthers. Pitino knew he had something special in his 6-foot-5 forward when Frink opened up the season against Boston College, with a 22-point and 10-rebound performance.
“I think he was probably, if not the best, the best freshman in this league,” Pitino said. “He was very valuable. It’s always tough for a freshman to contribute [30 minutes a game] because they’re not used to it, but he did a great job at it.”
Both Murphy and Frink were rebounding threats on the court, but junior Malik Smith took a different approach to the game. Smith’s focus going into the season was to be the best three-point shooter in the conference. He accomplished just that as he ranked first in three-pointers per game, with nearly three a contest.
His remarkable shooting netted him an average of 13 points a game, putting him just behind Murphy.
“Malik is a great leader. His confidence and leadership on the court carried us. He never seems rattled and is never scared to take the big shot,” Pitino said.
These players were the standout performers over the course of the season. The other players on the team were just as vital in piecing together a winning season. Pitino wanted to play fast up-tempo basketball that revolved around steals and fast-breaks. Deric Hill provided that with his team-high two steals a game, which helped the Panthers rank first in the SBC in steals.
Pitino wanted a savvy veteran to guide the team. Cameron Bell, a senior, provided that experience both of the bench or in the starting lineup.
Role-player Marco Porcher-Jimenez helped across the board by either grabbing pivotal rebounds or hitting big threes.
The Panthers are not done just yet. They are heading to Hot Springs, Ark., for the SBC Tournament. As the No.4 seed, they are getting a first-round bye, meaning their first game will come on March 9 against Arkansas-Little Rock. FIU has not been a four seed since the 2000 SBC Tournament. Pitino and his team will be looking for his players to not hold back.
“I think we can get more out of all my guys. Everyone single one of them has something they can improve on,” Pitino said. “I want everybody to give it their all.”