FIU is not basketball country — not now at least.
There are 14 teams in Conference USA, and the Panthers have been predicted to finish dead last in the league this season in both men’s and women’s basketball.
In addition, no Golden Panthers’ player — male or female — was named to any preseason all-league team.
Why such disrespect?
Let’s examine the facts: The men’s team finished 7-24 overall last season, 3-15 in league play, and 1-15 away from home. The Panthers were one of two teams in the league that did not qualify for the C-USA postseason tournament. They were also last in the league in defense.
Further, FIU’s top five scorers from last season are gone, and the top returning scorer, Eric Lockett, averaged just 5.1 points. FIU’s roster includes eight juniors, two freshmen, two sophomores and one senior. And only one of those players is from South Florida.
Anthony Evans, who is in his fifth season as FIU’s coach, is reportedly on the last year of his contract.
Does he feel pressure to at least produce a winning record this season?
“No,” Evans said. “I’m just going to coach the team and control what I can control.”
This season’s schedule brings a Nov. 27 visit from the South Carolina Gamecocks. South Carolina is directed by former Miami High coach Frank Martin, and the Gamecocks are coming off a season in which they reached the NCAA Final Four.
Beating South Carolina will be a longshot, but Evans, who has a 51-76 record at FIU, is pinning his hopes of a new contract largely on eight recruits signed within the past several months.
One of those recruits is 6-5 freshman wing Isaiah “Zeek” Banks, a Georgia native whose backboard-shattering dunk Jan. 11 was the No. 1 Play of the Day on ESPN’s SportsCenter. Banks also won a dunk contest at a Georgia-Alabama all-star game.
Three junior-college prospects could provide immediate help: 6-6 Willy Nunez, who averaged 20.8 points at Indian River; 6-5 Trejon Jacob, who shot 43 percent on three-pointers at Seminole State; and 6-5 Josh Stamps, who averaged 11.7 points at Trinity Valley.
Evans is also high on 6-11, 245-pound junior center Elhadji Dieng, a native of Senegal who averaged 8.8 points and 6.0 rebounds last season at Sheridan College. He made 57.7 percent of his shots.
“It’s a new season,” Evans said when asked why FIU fans should be optimistic. “We have a new group of young men. They want to change things, and the opportunity is there.”
The big-ticket matchup comes right away as the Panthers visit the University of Miami in their season opener on Friday.
The Panthers also play eight home games and just one on the road from Dec. 20 to Jan. 25. But seven of their final 10 games are on the road.
Last season, the first full year under coach Tiara Malcolm, the Panthers finished 5-24 overall, 3-15 in league play and 1-10 on the road.
They enter this season on a 10-game losing streak. Their last win was Jan. 26.
FIU has a young team with no seniors, five freshmen, three sophomores and three juniors.
Malcolm is trying to rebuild the program with local players and has three freshmen from Broward County: Cabria Lee (Northeast); TaMiracle Taylor (Fort Lauderdale) and Shante Walker (South Broward).