The school prefers its teams to go by “FIU,” but with the women’s basketball team, “Florida International” has long been appropriate. So it is again this year with the team Cindy Russo’s building around 2011-12 honorable mention All-American guard Jerica Coley.
FIU’s other preseason All-Sun Belt player, 6-1 forward Finda Mansare, is from Hungary. Their biggest loss from last season, 6-1 Fanni Hutlassa, was also from Hungary and had the diversity typical of European bigs — someone who can play in the post and step out to hit the three.
Replacing Hutlassa will be 6-3 Marita Davydova, a transfer from Russian State Agrarian University, and 6-3 senior Diamond Ashmore, who started one game and came off the bench in 25 others last year.
“The post players who’ll come in and take Fannni’s place are not experienced,” Russo said. “But they’ve had a very good preseason. They’ve improved tenfold from last year, and I think they’re ready to play. I see those two really contributing to that spot.”
Davydova spent last summer playing for Russia in the Under-20 European championships.
“She’s a really physical player, good hands,” Russo said.
Russo describes 5-9 Latvian Katrina Epnere as a guard who can also play power forward and said Epnere will get significant playing time as a freshman.
Another freshman who could see the court often is 5-6 guard Taylor Shade. Shade averaged 18.0 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.0 steals and 2.8 assists while picking up some All-State honors at Boynton Beach Community High.
But FIU revolves around Coley, its leader in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals last season and the returning leader in blocks (Hutlassa led in that). She also leads in minutes, averaging 39.4. Of FIU’s past 21 games, Coley played every minute in 18 of them and 36, 36 and 38 minutes in the other three.
Near the end of the season, late in some games, Coley looked like she could use a rest, if not a La-Z-Boy on the bench.
“We’d like to do that, and we’ll have a better chance of doing it this year,” Russo said. “We’ve had about four of five kids here capable of playing major minutes, and she’s definitely one of them.”
FIU’s nonconference schedule includes Iowa, Central Florida, Dartmouth and Northeastern.
“When you play those types of teams — we’re that type of team, too — I mean larger conference games, it gives you a gauge for yourself,” Russo said. “I think I’ve stepped outside the box to challenge us. We could be a very good .500 team at the beginning of the year because of the schedule.”
Last year, FIU got to the semifinals of the Sun Belt Conference tournament, won 23 games, routed Stetson in the first round of the women’s NIT before losing in the second round to South Florida.
“We have good weapons, we’re pretty deep in every area,” Russo said. “It’s a matter of getting together and plowing through when we need to.”