On Wednesday night in their opener, the FIU Panthers men’s basketball team is likely to get their first win of the season, which would accomplish that feat before the school’s football team can do the same.
While the football team is 0-5 and struggling with seven consecutive losses dating to last season, hope springs eternal for third-year basketball coach Jeremy Ballard.
In his first season, FIU went 20-14 — just the third 20-win season in Panthers history and one off the program record.
Last season, FIU was close to the record when the pandemic hit, halting the season at 19-13.
The new season begins Wednesday against the University of Fort Lauderdale, a first-year program with no on-campus gym.
“We’re ready,” Ballard said. “We’re excited. This is as deep a roster as I’ve ever had.
“Our preparation this year is different [due to COVID-19]. But it’s nothing different than what other teams around the country are facing. Some programs have had guys in isolation for a month. We’ve been [relatively] fortunate.”
However, at this time last year, FIU had already run a pair of closed scrimmages, against Miami and the University of Central Florida.
FIU has been training since July, but the Panthers have had to stop at times for as long as two weeks due to COVID-19 protocols.
FIU added Fort Lauderdale to help fill out its schedule. Ballard said FIU was going to schedule Stetson this week before that program ran into protocol issues.
Fort Lauderdale, which has applied to NCAA Division II as well as NAIA, is in limbo as to its athletics status. The team trains at Carter Park in Sunrise, two miles from campus.
Anthony Anderson, formerly the Broward College coach, was hired in July, and he laughs when asked if his team can beat FIU.
“I’ve got babies,” said Anderson, referring to a roster of freshmen and sophomores except or three juniors and one senior. “FIU has an established program.”
FIU’s first tough test could come on Dec. 1, when Central Michigan visits, and the Conference USA schedule begins Jan. 1. The Panthers won’t leave Florida until a Jan. 8-9 trip to Middle Tennessee.
The Panthers’ roster is led by 6-1 junior point guard Antonio Daye, who has made 49 starts the past two years; and 6-5 senior wing Isaiah Banks, who has 32 career starts and averaged 6.5 points last season.
Daye averaged 10.6 points, tops among the returners, and his 4.9 assists led Conference USA.
“Antonio is a big-time player,” Ballard said. “When he is at his best, our ceiling is high.
“Isaiah is as dependable a player as I’ve coached. He’s a high-character kid.”
Tevin Brewer, a 5-8 junior point guard, also returns after averaging 7.0 points and 3.1 assists last season. He started 10 games and then missed the rest of the season due to knee surgery. Brewer’s three-point percentage of 37.0 is best among FIU returners.
Ballard is looking to replace three starters who combined to averaged 39.8 points last season: forward Devon Andrews, center Osasumwen Osaghae and wing Trejon Jacob. Osaghae was also named the C-USA Player of the Year after leading the nation in blocked shots.
Two players who were reserves last season — 6-5 senior Eric Lovett and 6-1 Cameron Corcoran — will look for larger roles. Lovett averaged 8.5 points and shot 36.4 percent on three-pointers. Corcoran averaged 5.8 and shot 36.3 percent.
Ballard also has four newcomers, and 6-4 forward Radshad Davis, a transfer from Texas-Arlington, may offer the most immediate help.
“He brings maturity and toughness,” Ballard said. “He’s an excellent rebounder, which we need, but he will also shoot more three-pointers for us.”