FIU men’s basketball

New era means many question marks for FIU Panthers basketball


The Panthers are expected to finish last in their division this season, but first-year coach Richard Pitino still wants his team to believe.

How little most anticipate FIU men’s basketball to matter this season got spotlighted in the Sun Belt Conference coaches’ preseason poll released Wednesday: FIU last in the East with nobody on any preseason All-Sun Belt team.

That’s the projection for most programs with a new coach, a half-new roster that lost its two best players, DeJuan Wright and Jeremy Allen, from an eight-win team. That doesn’t mean it’s got anything to do with what new boss Richard Pitino sees as his main task before the Nov. 11 season opener at Boston College.

“I understand a lot of people are not expecting a lot out of us,” FIU coach Richard Pitino said. “I want our team to believe we have a chance to win this conference, to win each game. If you’re still coaching chemistry, effort and intensity in November and December, you’ve got problems.”

While Pitino said he plans to play an up-tempo style that’ll deploy players deep into the bench, he said a quintet of players already have stepped forward:

Sophomore guard Deric Hill, who took over at point guard late last season; 6-2 junior guard Malik Smith, a transfer from Jacksonville (Texas) College; 6-6 senior forward Tola Akomolafe, who missed much of last season after academic issues; 6-6 forward Jerome Frink, a freshman out of Jersey City (N.J.) St. Anthony’s; and 6-5 junior forward Tymell Murphy, a transfer from South Plains College in Texas.

Pitino named another transfer, 6-2 senior guard Gaby Belardo, when asked for a player who could really boost FIU this year. Belardo is still recovering from summer back surgery after averaging 12.0 points and 3.0 rebounds per game for Canisius in 2011-12.

Belardo, from Puerto Rico, has had a nomadic last few years. He bounced from Montverde Academy to Notre Dame Prep (Mass.) in high school. His college career began with a season at South Florida in which he appeared in 18 games, averaging less than a point and a rebound per game. He transferred to Canisius, where he started 43 of 56 games over two seasons and was a team captain last season.

“It’s very necessary for him to be healthy Nov. 11,” Pitino said. “He has a lot of talent, he’s a very good offensive player. But he’s not going to be that at 50 percent.”

Middle Tennessee State is the unanimous selection to win the Sun Belt’s East Division and North Texas also was each coach’s choice to win the West. Last year’s Sun Belt Freshman of the Year, North Texas’ Tony Mitchell, was picked as preseason Player of the Year.

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