As FIU begins Sun Belt play at home against Arkansas State on Thursday night, one thing can be said for this team with a new coach and a half-new roster: They don’t play the same old, pack-it-in defensive ball that has sucked the scoring out of college basketball.
Over the first three games, FIU scored 72.3 points per game. Not that said coach, Richard Pitino, wouldn’t like the Panthers to play a better brand of defense than they have — they allowed 76.7 points per game and 50.3 percent shooting from the field.
They followed a season-opening 84-70 loss at Boston College, with whom they were tied in the second half until BC’s closing run, with a 69-60 home loss to Stephen F. Austin that wasn’t as close as the score. The Panthers rebounded by knocking off Coastal Carolina for the second year in a row 87-77.
“The offense is way ahead of the defense. The defense has got to do a better job. Our defensive numbers are not very good right now,” Pitino said. “It’s not surprising. I think our system is probably not the easiest thing to learn defensively. I think we’ve got 12 to 15 new guys all learning it, so I think it makes sense that the defense is behind the offense.
“We guard things differently for each game,” he added. “We’ll guard things out of our zone differently. It’s pretty technical. Then, as well as pressing. It’s not like it’s just a traditional man-to-man.”
Junior Malik Smith, FIU’s leading scorer at 17.7 points per game, said, “I think it’s just the first few games, we weren’t communicating the way we should have. That makes it hard for anybody to defend anybody.”
Senior forward Tola Akomolafe, with last year’s team all season but unable to play because of an academic issue, identified off-court communion as the difference between this year’s team and last year’s.
“People are, socially in the locker room, a lot more communicative,” Akomolafe said.
“Because everybody’s so new, there’s fewer cliques. Everybody’s kind of more of a brotherhood.”
Akomolafe mentioned Pitino’s high expectations for the team while Pitino mentioned his high expectations for Akomolafe. The 6-6 senior averages 7.7 points per game. That’s fine with Pitino. He also averages 3.7 rebounds per game. That’s not fine with Pitino, especially as FIU’s been getting outrebounded 38.3 to 28.7 per game.
“I think he’s got the ability to be a really, really good player in our league,” Pitino said.
“He’s been good. He hasn’t been great. I want great out of him. I think he can give us great.”