Less than two months ago, FIU men’s basketball bore the burden of having earned not-so-great expectations.
How much could anyone expect of a team with not just a new coach, but a 29-year-old in his first year as head coach of anything larger than a family vacation and a roster he cobbled together on the fly? Who didn’t understand FIU being picked as the Sun Belt Conference’s worst team in the preseason coaches poll?
So, who can explain FIU at 7-7 overall with a 2-3 record in the Sun Belt and a chance this week to get two games over .500 this far into the season for the first time since 1999-2000? The Panthers travel to Arkansas-Little Rock on Thursday and Arkansas State on Saturday.
“I think we’re about where I expected us to be, progress-wise,” FIU coach Richard Pitino said. “I don’t try to predict wins and losses because so many things can go into it. We could’ve easily won at [Florida] Gulf Coast [a 76-73 loss]. We could’ve easily lost at Texas Southern [a 48-45 win]. We could’ve easily lost [Monday, a 74-72 win against Bethune-Cookman].
“What you try to do as a coach is you try to progress and get better. I think we’re doing that.”
Pitino’s still not happy with FIU’s defense, which is allowing 44.9 percent shooting from the field, and that the Panthers get outrebounded by an average of 2.1 rebounds per game.
But part of that goes to something Louisville coach Rick Pitino, Richard’s father, said last month after the Cardinals spanked FIU on the banks of the Ohio River. He noted that once FIU gets better at the power forward and center spots, the Panthers will play the kind of defense Richard Pitino wants.
It’s unusual then that FIU’s defensive catalyst the past few games has been the smallest active roster player, 5-9 sophomore walk-on guard Deric Hill, who is out of South Miami High.
(The smallest player overall is 5-6 FAU transfer Raymond Taylor.)
When Hill enters the game, it’s as if the other team’s playing a video game that just jumped a level. Everything and everybody seems accelerated. Things happen at a speed that could be described as “crazy fast.”
Hill leads FIU with 30 steals, 13 of which have come in the past three games and 11 more than freshman forward Jerome Frink’s second-best total. Hill averages 16 minutes per game, seventh on the team, but has seen his playing time increase steadily during the past four games: 18 minutes, 20, 22, 25.
After a stellar game against Florida A&M, in which Hill wreaked havoc on FAMU’s offense, he said guarding Taylor in practice helps with his hand speed and defensive confidence.
“He has really turned it up,” Richard Pitino said. “He’s becoming one of our better players. What you see with Deric is it’s all style of play. This style of play fits him. He’s bought into it. He doesn’t worry about his offense, he only worries about impacting the game through defense, getting deflections, getting steals.
“He had eight rebounds [Monday], eight assists. He’s doing everything we ask him to and doing it with great effort. In his defense, he’s always bought in. I just probably haven’t played him enough.”