It’s not a statement on knee-high expectations to say the Panthers are happy just to be at the Conference USA men’s basketball tournament in Birmingham, which opens Wednesday with FIU against Texas-San Antonio.
No team more understands that some conference tournament appearances aren’t automatic.
They’ve seen their hoop sisters fail to make the women’s Conference USA tournament by going winless in conference play.
Those who played last year saw FIU’s men’s season end with the regular season because of NCAA sanctions.
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And there’s the waiting.
Leading scorer and Second-Team All-CUSA guard Dennis Mavin hasn’t been in a conference tournament in three years, since he played for FAU in the 2012 Sun Belt Conference tournament. Mavin sat out 2012-13 after he transferred to FIU. That season, he got less than two fewer minutes conference tournament time at FIU than redshirt junior center Adrian Diaz did at Kansas State.
Three-point specialist Marco Porcher Jimenez got on the floor for more than that during the Panthers’ run to the 2013 Sun Belt Conference championship game. He’s the only player on the roster who played for FIU in that tournament.
“Excited, amped, fired up, ready to go try to win this thing,” said Diaz, last week’s conference Player of the Week. He also was named to the league’s All-Defensive Team on Tuesday.
“Happy to be here and to have the opportunity,” coach Anthony Evans said. “Last year was tough for everyone. We knew what to expect. We knew the situation. But it was tough to face the reality that it’s over and you don’t have a chance to compete.”
Nobody with any sense discounts FIU as having a dark horse chance. After tumbling in the conference standings by losing six of eight — and one of those wins being an overtime escape against a Southern Mississippi team that dressed only seven players — FIU closed the season with home wins against Middle Tennessee State and Alabama-Birmingham.
“We needed those wins,” said Diaz, who had 14 points, 12 rebounds and 13 blocks, the first triple-double in Conference USA this season and believed to be the first in FIU history. “[Seniors] Dennis, Kris Gulley, Marco, we wanted them to leave with a bang.”
Earlier this season, the Panthers lost to both Middle Tennessee and Alabama-Birmingham on one road trip by a combined 30 points.
Their earlier games against UTSA and No. 2 tournament seed Texas-El Paso, Thursday’s opponent if FIU wins Wednesday, could be the Panthers’ season in microcosm.
They overwhelmed UTSA early then saw 26 turnovers disintegrate a 13-point first half lead into an 11-point loss. Next, they fell behind by 14 to UTEP, fought back the entire second half to lead by one going into the final 80 seconds, and then lost by three.
“With a lot of new players, I knew guys would be challenged and there would be rough spots,” Evans said. “It takes time to get some chemistry and consistency. Outside of a three-game stretch, we never lost more than two in a row. It gives you the idea we can stop it if we start to slide.”
FIU men vs. UTSA
When/where: 1 p.m.; Bartow Arena, Birmingham, Alabama.
TV/radio: Available on Comcast SportsNet Chicago or Bay Area.
Records: FIU 15-16, 8-10 Conference USA; UTSA 14-15, 8-10.
Noteworthy: The 74-63 loss to UTSA at FIU Arena, which the Panthers led by 13 in the first half and nine at halftime, turned on turnovers. UTSA stopped committing them in the second half, and FIU kept going and ended with an atrocious 26 turnovers. … You don’t make long tournament runs being bad at the free-throw line and the Panthers’ free-throw percentage in Conference USA games, 63.3 percent, ranks 12th of 14.