Still a little sluggish this afternoon after an incredible Super Bowl party last night. I had no rooting interest in the game (well, other than not wanting the Steelers to win again, I guess.) The game had everything you would ever want in a championship contest, from drama and excitement to a halftime show I did not watch, but I digress.
The Panthers have continued to improve from last year's seven win season. From what I see, this team has the potential to be really good one day. Like I've said before, fans need to be patient.
Granted, the Panthers have only won a game out of their last eight but the team has been competitive over that stretch. The Panthers have faced some of the best team in the Sun Belt over that period, including Denver and FAU. FIU had late leads in almost all those games, including sending division leading Denver to overtime.
"We play good for 38 minutes. Part of teaching a team how to win is making a team understand that we don't lose a game in the last two minutes. You can lose the game in the first seven minutes on one or two plays," FIU coach Isiah Thomas said. "When your playing three or four point basketball games like we are playing every mistake costs."
Adding to the Panthers' growing pains is missing several key recruits to start the season. You have to take into count that freshman Dominique Ferguson and Phil Taylor have only played in 13 and 5 games, respectively.
The Panthers have also been without Alex Legion, who has missed the last four games because of a coach's decision. There is no word on why Thomas has decided to not play Legion recently. After Saturday's loss to FAU, Thomas said he believes Legion will play again this season but added "it depends on how I feel."
I know Saturday's 73-72 road loss to FAU felt like a punch to the gut but you have to give credit to how well the guys played for 39 minutes. Last season, FIU lost 106-88 in Boca and 77-74 at home. The Panthers dominated from the start, taking a 12-1 lead early in the game. The Owls had little answer for FIU in the first-half, trailing the Panthers 35-29 at halftime.
The second half started great for FIU, jumping out to a 12-point lead at one point. FIU seemed destined to win but FAU pulled out the victory with four seconds to play.
Statistically, FIU did some things differently in the second half that proved to hurt the team:
1. Foul shooting continues to be a problem in close game, with the Panthers making 10 of 17 attempts in the second half.
"We have the same press conference after every game. We continue to do all the big things to win it but the way you close out a game...You close it out at the foul line," Thomas said after practice on Monday.
On the season, FIU is shooting 68 percent from the foul line. If you take in to account only conference games, FIU is 10th in the Sun Belt in free throw percentage. I asked coach Thomas if the only way to fix the problem is through practice and he seemed to agree with me.
"That's it [practice]. I've called and talked to several people. We punish them. They run sprints when they miss. We have them shoot [free throws.] It's just practice, repetition and confidence," he said.
2. FIU was 1 of 2 on two three-pointers compared to 8 of 12 in the first half. The opposite was true for FAU, making 7 of 12 on threes in the second half compared to 2 of 8 in the first. The Owls' Shavar Richardson made back-to-back three-pointers with less than 15 seconds to cut FIU's lead to a point.
In reality, when you look at the box score of the game, FIU won the majority of the categories, except for the most important one, the score.
"You're upset because you have four or five games right in our grasp," he added. "You're excited because there are four our five games that are right in our grasp," Thomas said.
FIU has five games remaining before the conference tournament starts in early March. If the season ended today, the Panthers would be the fifth seed and would play UALR. FIU needs to be able to pick up a few wins before the season is over to avoid sliding further in the standings.