With a win Thursday night against North Texas, the FIU men’s basketball team can claim the accomplishment of an increased win total over last season and being over .500 after 17 games for the first time this millennium.
“We’re not satisfied with 8-8,” sophomore guard Deric Hill said. “We can be much better than 8-8. Our goal is not just to beat last year’s record, it’s to do more.”
One thing the Panthers have done is find an identity, one hammered home by completing a season sweep of Arkansas State (10-7) last Thursday before losing 88-76 to the towering lineup of Arkansas-Little Rock (11-8) on Saturday.
“I was really proud of our guys to win in a tough environment at Arkansas State,” FIU coach Richard Pitino said. “It’s always hard to beat a really good team twice. That’s always tough and to finish that sweep on the road versus a very talented, well-coached team is something that showed a lot of guts and heart.
“I thought we got better this trip. I think that Arkansas State game showed our guys they can do it and the way they can do it is through defense. We held Arkansas State to 64 points on the road. Then they lost their defensive mentality on Saturday, and it showed we can’t outscore people.”
It’s an identity shared by the more-decorated, talented University of Miami team: small, living on defense, scrapping for rebounds.
“We’re playing a center who’s 6-5 and a four-man who’s 6-4,” Pitino said. “We’re small. That has a lot to do with it. We certainly need to do a better job of defensive rebounding.
“That just comes from hitting people and pursuing the ball, which we haven’t done a great job of at all. But, it’s improving. The mentality’s improving. But when you play small, you’re going to get outrebounded.”
But that team identity could be embodied by the 5-9 Hill, a sophomore out of South Miami. Hill leads FIU in steals with 31 while playing only 17.3 minutes per game.
Hill began the season as the starting point guard. Now, he usually comes off the bench behind senior Gaby Belardo.
“I expected to play behind him anyway,” Hill said. “He got healthy and we lost with me starting. We switched roles.
“Gaby played well and I played better coming off the bench, so Coach just decided to stay with that lineup. I was comfortable with it.”
Especially off backcourt pressure, Hill looks like a blur of hands constantly swiping at the ball.
“The offensive player knows I’m trying to get every steal I can because that’s what keeps me on the court, my defense,” Hill said.
• The FIU women open Thursday’s doubleheader against North Texas, which leads the Sun Belt’s Western Division with a 5-2 conference record but is 6-10 overall.
Panthers junior guard Jerica Coley’s 23.8 points-per-game scoring average puts her third in the nation, and she’s second in the Sun Belt in blocked shots.