Transfers ready to move from sidelines to the court

Kevin Castaneda/Staff Writer

Imagine you are the biggest fan of FIU’s men’s basketball team.

You not only go to every single home game, you travel to watch the Panthers on the road. Having watched basketball your whole life, you begin to nitpick some of the things the team does wrong – plays like Malik Smith taking on off-balance three with two defenders in his face or Deric Hill making a lazy crosscourt pass that gets intercepted. However, no matter how mad you get at their plays, you know as a fan the most you can do is yell from the bleachers.

The entire season Raymond Taylor, Rakeem Buckles and Dennis Mavin lived this experience tenfold. The three transfers had to sit out this whole season, relegated to the role of hardcore fans. Unlike a fan who can’t change the outcome of a game, these players had to endure knowing their talent could make a difference.

“It’s very frustrating because you feel like everything that a team needs, you can provide it,” said Taylor, a redshirt senior.

The Panthers were extremely young this season and Head Coach Richard Pitino stressed it. He repeatedly said that he had no way of referencing back to a specific game because his players had never played Division I basketball at this level. This meant in practice the primary role that Taylor and his fellow transfers provided this season was that of being mentors and sharing their experience.

“You turn into a coach and a student of the game,” Taylor said. “Deric Hill had a great season for us this year. I feel a part of that was because of how much we pushed each other in practice.”

Buckles, a redshirt senior, brought the most experience to the table having played at No. 2 Louisville under Pitino’s father, Rick Pitino. In his freshman year, Buckles was able to experience the NCAA Tournament and the Final Four. His exposure to such a stage could have helped the Panthers in key games when the pressure may have been too much.

Taylor and Mavin came from Florida Atlantic University with championship pedigrees. Just two years ago, the duo led the Owls to a first place finish in the East Division of the Sun Belt Conference.

Having played at such high levels in their careers, it was difficult for them to sit and watch the entire time.

“When we got hurt in the post, me and Rakeem would talk about it. We felt like Rakeem could provide that spark in the post. Or if it was lacking from a point guard production, I would be like ‘man I can produce whatever we needed.’”

Buckles and Taylor not only played high school basketball together at Miami Pace, but they led the team to a state championship together. While at Pace, both players also played under Mark Lieberman, who is now an assistant coach for the Panthers. Buckles’ familiarity with both Pitino and Lieberman will translate well into next season, and the offensive scheme right into Taylor’s skill set.

“Coach Pitino is a guru offensively and he knows where to put me in the right spot, where I can really display what I can do with the ball,” Taylor said. “Offensively, Rakeem knows this system like the back of his hand because he came over here with Pitino. And defensively that’s Dennis’ strength.”

Knowing the offense and defense is one thing, but execution is another. These players have taken a year to digest the game from the sideline, as well as be upset by some of the losses.

For Taylor, his most disappointing moment came in the SBC Championship loss to Western Kentucky – a game where he knows he could have been a difference maker.

“It meant the most. It was the game that could have made history, going to the NCAA Tournament when no one thought we could do it,” Taylor said. “I played against Western Kentucky for 3 years. I know those players a little bit better than Deric and would have picked better spots where to attack.”

The Panthers posted a fantastic season in the SBC. Next year they move to the Conference USA. Now that the transfers will have the opportunity to play next year, Taylor has set some very lofty goals.

“My expectations are to win the Conference USA outright,” Taylor said. “To be the league champions the first year in it.”