Richard Pitino and Jeremy Ballard have some things in common, but the FIU Panthers are hoping the pattern doesn’t completely follow.
Allow us to explain:
The last time an FIU men’s basketball team won 18 games was during the 2012-2013 season, when first-year coach Pitino led the Panthers to an 18-14 record and the finals of the Sun Belt Conference.
Immediately after that season, Pitino bolted for a job coaching the Minnesota Gophers.
FIU replaced Pitino with Anthony Evans, who suffered through five consecutive losing seasons, including a 7-24 record in 2016-2017.
This season — the first as a head coach for Ballard — the Panthers are 18-11 overall and 9-7 in Conference USA, which. is a tougher league than the Sun Belt.
“This isn’t an easy place to win at,” Ballard said of FIU. “But [the winning record] is a credit to our players. They’re driven to change the fortunes of FIU.”
That plan is working as FIU is riding a four-game win streak and is preparing for the final week of the regular season. The Panthers will visit Marshall on Wednesday and play host to North Texas on Saturday to close out the regular campaign. After that, FIU will compete in the Conference USA postseason tournament, March 13-16 at Frisco, Texas.
FIU could be as high as a sixth seed in the C-USA tournament, and the Panthers figure to be dangerous.
“We’re playing our best basketball of the season, and we’re doing it at the perfect time,” Ballard said. “We’ve been building toward this.”
FIU is led by 5-10 senior point guard Brian Beard, who on Sunday became just the seventh player in school history to reach 1,000 career points, doing so during an 83-76 win over Louisiana Tech. Beard also leads the league with 3.0 steals per game, ranks second in assists (6.3) and seventh in scoring (17.5).
“I’m incredibly fortunate to have inherited a senior point guard like Brian,” Ballard said. “He fits perfectly what we do on both ends of the court.
“He may not be scoring as much as he did earlier in the season, but this is the best he has led, and this is the best he has delivered the ball to his teammates.”
Besides Beard, FIU’s recent win streak has been powered by players such as Devon Andrews, Osasumwen Osaghae and Antonio Daye.
Andrews is FIU’s second-leading scorer (15.4) and has reached 20 points in three of his past five games.
Osaghae leads the league in blocked shots (3.0) and is third in school history in career and single-season rejections.
Daye, a 6-1 freshman from Duke University Country — also known as Durham, North Carolina — has made 14 starts this season and is the heir apparent to Beard as the point guard. Daye, who is averaging 8.9 points and 2.7 assists, often sets up the offense even while playing simultaneously with Beard.
THIS AND THAT
▪ FIU’s baseball team (5-5) went 2-2 last week, losing a 10-8 shootout to the Miami Hurricanes before taking two of three from Jacksonville State.
In these first 10 games, FIU has been led by outfielder Lorenzo Hampton, catcher Javier Valdes and starting pitchers Nick MacDonald (2.87 ERA), Logan Allen (2.25 ERA) and Christian Santana (2.19 ERA).
Hampton leads FIU with a .410 batting average and has an OPS of .1134. Valdes, who is batting .333, leads FIU with an OPS of .1250.
FIU’s next six games are at home.
▪ On Friday in Atlanta, the FIU swimming and diving team became the first Panthers squad to win a fifth straight conference title.