FIU has no time for rest with Sun Belt tournament tomorrow

Kevin Castaneda/Staff Writer

The FIU men’s basketball team ended the season on a sour note.

Though finishing with a 16-13 record, the best mark the program mustered in the last 13 years, the team lost its final game to the Florida Atlantic Owls, leaving them to linger in the air of defeat for a week.

The loss means the players have to wait a full week before they get a crack at the hardwood again, since they have a first-round bye. Several factors could be running through the minds of the Panthers. Are they going in smug about an above .500 record? Are they going in angry they lost their last game of the season? The only certain thing is their trip to Hot Springs, Ark. for the Sun Belt Conference Tournament as the No. 4 seed facing the No. 5 seed Arkansas-Little Rock Trojans.

The two teams split their regular season matchups, both winning at home. Working against FIU is the fact that the tournament will be played in the Trojans’ backyard. Even with that looming above the Panther’s heads, senior point guard Cameron Bell is not scared.

“I would play anybody in the first round. I really don’t think there is a team we want to shy away from,” Bell said. “So if we see [University of Arkansas at Little Rock] in the first round, we’re going to go in as confident as if we would see anybody else in the tournament.”

What Bell might not be aware of is that just two years ago, Steve Shields, the Trojans’ head coach, won the SBC Tournament. In his nine previous seasons as head coach, Shields has led the Trojans to five division championships. Those five first-place finishes are the most by any school in the SBC during his tenure at Little Rock.

FIU’s first-year Head Coach Richard Pitino is certainly aware of the experience Shields is bringing to the court. In his first year at the helm, Pitino also is bringing high-level tournament experience as well. Having been an assistant at both Louisville under his father Rick Pitino and at University of Florida under Billy Donovan, he has been a part of three Elite Eights and a Final Four. However, Pitino does not believe it will come down to a coaching duel, rather it will come down to the players.

“It’s not going to have much to do with me or him,” Pitino said.  “This time of the year it comes down to the players.”

The entire season, Pitino has been adamant that he does not define his expectations by wins or losses. He has focused on a day-by-day, game-by-game approach with team goals that can lead to wins.

“My expectations are, ‘Are they going to play really hard?’ ‘Are they going to defend?’ ‘Are they going to rebound?’ ‘Are they going to take great shots?’ ‘Are they going to have a great attitude?’” Pitino said. “If we handle my expectations, I think we will win.”

These expectations will weigh heavily on the shoulders of the team’s captain, Malik Smith. The junior shooting guard has been the vocal leader of the Panthers this season. Pitino even challenged Smith after the loss at FAU to take control of the team and hold the others accountable.

“This late in the season, they’re going to hear the same thing from me. At some point the players have got to do it themselves,” Pitino said.

Giving the leadership role to Smith does not mean Pitino is eliminating other players from his game plan. He does not want only one player to dominate. His ideal situation is to get everyone involved and improved. Players like Tymell Murphy, a first-team SBC player who leads the team in both points and rebounds per game or even Jerome Frink, who Pitino regards as the best freshman in the SBC, have areas that can be further developed.

“I certainly want everyone to give it their all. I think that every single one of them has something they can improve on,” Pitino said.

The Panthers have definitely improved as a program as their 11 conference wins were the most in the school’s history since joining the SBC in the 1998-1999 season. If the players can execute Pitino’s game plan of fast basketball, solid defense and fundamental rebounding, perhaps this is the year the Panthers can make it past the quarterfinals, a feat not done in eight years.

“We are preparing for Little Rock like it’s a national championship,” Pitino said.