College Basketball CIT Picks — FIU Tackles Titletown


Yes, I admit to being old enough to having been around the Florida International University (FIU) basketball program in its Division I infancy. I had a radio show in Miami, and on game nights, my partner and I appropriated that time to an FIU pre-game show. I recall going to the pre-season FIU basketball banquet and my partner, who was really the guy with the connection to the school, said that Charles Jay from WVCG (my brokered radio station) thought this team might be able to get to the NIT.

I really didn’t know any such thing, but hey – the boosters were in attendance, and they liked hearing it.

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There have been some interesting moments for the FIU basketball team, one of which was in 1995, as surprise winners of the Trans-American Athletic Conference championship, got the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament with an 11-18, only to lose 92-56 to the eventual national champion UCLA Bruins.

How they ever scored 56 points was beyond me.

Back then, the program was kind of quaint and charming. I remember one coach mentioning that the only reason he kept a certain walk-on was that his father owned a restaurant where the team ate for free.

FIU eventually had more recognizable names patrolling the sidelines, like Richard Pitino and Isiah Thomas, but they came and went.

The Panthers (formerly the Golden Panthers, and before that the Sunblazers) have won twenty games a couple of times before, but this year’s squad has created a real identity, and things may finally be looking up. Jeremy Ballard brought a different energy to the situation; a former assistant to Shaka Smart at Virginia Commonwealth, and when he came into his current situation as the head coach at FIU, he vowed to bring Smart’s “havoc” approach to defense with him – an approach that doesn’t let up on the opposition (while, incidentally, Smart hasn’t exactly created much havoc with Texas).

Ballard’s pledge was to be on the attack from beginning to end. And his determination was that opponents will be forced into playing the Panthers’ game, sooner or later.

The results have not been astounding, but they have been positive. Those 56 points against UCLA are something to laugh about now; this year’s club has topped 100 points on six occasions. Never mind that those efforts have come against opponents like Johnson & Wales – which is perhaps best known as a school for budding chefs – and Ave Maria College, which may be best known for its huge mosquito problem. These guys play FAST.

Ballard has delivered on his promise to deliver high-speed basketball to the Panthers. His team is #1 in the nation in the category of Adjusted Tempo, and they have led the nation in steals for much of the season. The key to this team has been an inside-outside duo of Brian Beard, who is third in the nation in steals, and Osasumwen Osaghae. who is one of the nation’s leaders in blocked shots. They run and run and run.

FIU may not have been a top-shelf contender in the Conference USA race, but they have done something no other FIU team since the 1995 NCAA Tournament team has done – make it to the post-season, even if it is “only” the College Insider Tournament (CIT).

And they’re still going.

Having gone on the road to defeat Texas State as an underdog in their initial CIT game, FIU takes to the floor on Tuesday night getting 3-1/2 points in the BetAnySports odds against the Green Bay Phoenix (yes, that’s the name) in a game that begins at 8 PM ET at the Resch Center in Titletown U.S.A.

Although FIU is playing at exactly the tempo Ballard wants them to employ, that’s not to say everything has been perfect. In fact, they’ve got a long way to go, and therein lies the problem with Tuesday’s game. If you’re going to be a fast break team you’ve got to be able to hit the boards, and FIU has been a horrible rebounding team at both ends of the floor, especially on the stop end, where they are 342nd in defensive rebounding percentage (stats from Since, naturally, fast breaks begin with defensive rebounds, you can see where that would create difficulty.

The Panthers also can’t make their free throws (64.7% – only 21 of the 353 Division I teams are worse than that). And although they take 41% of their shots from three-point territory, they are one of the least accurate teams in the nation (29.9% – 340th nationwide – ouch!). Yes, they have been able to force turnovers (on 23.4% of opponent’s possessions, in fact), that is really the lion’s share of what they have to offer. If they can pressure teams into confusion, they can look like a million bucks. But Green Bay takes care of the ball pretty well, turning it over on only about one out of six possessions. They have the capability of beating FIU’s press.

And they are not going to mind the pace either, as they are 10th in the nation in Adjusted Temp – hence the posted total of 177 points. Even though FIU’s Brian Beard had 29 points against Texas State, Green Bay may have the best all-around offensive player on the floor in Marquette transfer Sandy Cohen, who averages 17.2 points and might just be a nice Jewish boy (we kid – actually, he’s not Jewish).

Maybe this is a team that is jelling at the right time, but I see too many glaring shortcomings with FIU here

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