Saturday’s FIU Men’s Basketball Incongruity Dilemna: acting like it’s just another game while feeding off the energy of an unusually large crowd to play at the level of an A-list opponent.
Because this game against sixth-ranked and defending national champion Louisville at U.S. Century Bank Arena, might be as close to an NCAA Tournament game as FIU’s played on their home court.
NCAA postseason bans for deficient academic progress rates make this the biggest game of the season. It’s on national television. So was FIU’s last game, an 72-61 win against Florida Gulf Coast. But people outside Florida (and a few inside) confuse FGCU with FAU or FIU. Nobody confuses Louisville with anybody.
So, you get fifth-year senior Rakeem Buckles, the Miami native who followed Richard Pitino when he left father Rick Pitino’s Louisville coaching staff for FIU in 2012, saying, “I’m excited for the environment. Last game was great. The crowd really helped us a lot” but also cautioning:
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“Don’t get ahead of ourselves. We’re playing against a good opponent. We don’t want to get nervous. Just got to treat it as another game and know that we can compete with those guys.”
Just another game that likely will have four times the crowd and at least twice the media as a normal FIU home game. At least it’s a game.
FIU came off the Gulf Coast win with conquering energy coursing and staring at…finals. Two weeks of practice.
“Ty (senior forward Tymell Murphy) and I joke about it all the time,” redshirt junior guard Dennis Mavin said. “We had this crazy game. Now we’ve got to wait two weeks to play Louisville.”
FIU coach Anthony Evans admitted, “When you play, you get into a rhythm. Then you have a long break like this, you might get out of rhythm. We would love to have played the game [sooner]. Obviously, finals are more important. We just have to practice and be ready.”
Turnover reduction occupied practice time. FIU ranks 286th in the nation (of 345) in turnovers per game and 295th in turnover margin. Guess who’s No. 1 in both categories as well as seventh in steals per game. (Hint: from Kentucky; doesn’t wear blue and white; same mascot as the major league baseball team whose minor league team used to be in their town).
“You have guys like [Louisville senior guard] Russ Smith and [Wayne] Blackshear, those guys get out in transition and score,” Evans said. “You turn the ball over, you take the quick shot, they’re going to push the ball down the floor and get the bucket. You have to make them play defense; get back; take quality shots; not turn the ball over quickly.”
Last year, the national champions-to-be ran FIU into the Ohio River 79-55 with a 16-4 advantage in fast break points and 25-10 in points off turnovers. That FIU team searched for itself into January. This one seems less going through team puberty than the giddiness and uncertainty of young adulthood.
“Everywhere we go now, ‘Y’all got Louisville coming in!’ ‘Louisville this’ and ‘Louisville that,’” Mavin said. “I look at it as another game. Obviously, it’s a great opportunity for the school and for us to get a great win. I look at it as another game and another opponent. Just like I want to take off any other team’s head. Louisville is no different.”