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A Stunned Thomas Thought He Had More Time, Doesn't Know What Next

What next? A return to the NBA? Recently fired FIU men's basketball coach Isiah Thomas said he needed to "take a couple of days to digest this."

"My plan today was to take a recruit out to dinner," Thomas laughed darkly hours after he and the FIU men's basketball coaching staff had been sacked.

Thomas said he had been interviewing a candidate to replace resigned assistant coach Frank Holloway when he got the call from FIU athletic director Pete Garcia using that euphemism "we're going in a different direction."

(And a hilarious euphemism it is. A pro sports radio play-by-play announcer heard that phrase as he was fired and laughed, "What, going in the direction of not having a play-by-play announcer?")

Thomas felt as if he really had only two years to turn FIU around because he was hired on Signing Day three years ago, essentially eliminating a recruiting season. He didn't go into this, but it's worth saying -- when he was hired, FIU wasn't just a program with a long tradition of losing amidst total apathy on campus and in the metropolitan area toward college basketball. Also, the program had its piece of the probation under which the whole athletic department labored since 2006. It's a program with no regular local radio broadcasts and no television.

The record says that hasn't changed much: 26-65 in three seasons, 14-36 in the Sun Belt and the Sun Belt record breakdown went 4-14, 5-11, 5-11. A 2-9 home record this season and eight wins overall was inexcusable considering FIU pulled off some shocking road wins.

Rarely have I seen a team that so often lapsed into dumb basketball for five to seven-minute blocs as this year's FIU men. Some teams have occasional brain farts and other teams live in a state of terminal brain flatulation. But this was a team that seemed to suffer rolling synapse blackouts. That points to coaching, but, at some point, players have to take some responsibility for that.

"But we're playing with freshmen and sophomores," Thomas pointed out. "At no place in the country do you walk in and win with freshmen and sophomores unless it's Kentucky freshmen and sophomores. The close games we lost, those are the games freshmen and sophomores lose."

A team with no margin for error got kneecapped with an injury that took out its best player, guard DeJuan Wright, for several games midseason. They lost power forward Tola Akamolafe to academic ineligibility sources say stemmed from bad advice given him. While we're on that track, other Camp Mitch sources said during the year FIU delivered academic rejections to point guard K.C. Ross-Miller and North Texas' dazzling Tony Mitchell. Too risky. To be fair, each got academically bumped from LSU and Missouri, respectively. But FIU's got athletes just as academically questionable competing in other sports.

As far as academics, 17 of 19 players graduated in Thomas' three years at FIU. Not surprising -- the man spent six NBA offseasons going back to school until he got his degree and is still taking graduate courses 25 years later. He doesn't pay lip service to academics. He cares about the books far more than the average college basketball or football coach. Would he bring in an academic risk? Yep. Would he also get angry if that kid or any other kid wasn't pushed to attain their academic potential or got lazy about it? Yep.

I asked him if he thought FIU was ready as a program and athletic department overall to be a consistent 18-20-win team that could contend for the NCAAs regularly out of the Sun Belt. He said he thought so with Myers, Chicago's Milton Doyle and Tim Williams coming in next year and four of the state's top 50 recruits verbally committed for 2013.

Next year's team won't have Wright or Jeremy Allen for leadership. As of now, it will have Phil Taylor moving to shooting guard, a more natural position for him, and five players 6-9 and over (if they all stay, post-Thomas): Brandon Moore, Dominique Ferguson, Joey De La Rosa, Gilles Dierickx and transfer Lekan Ajayi.

 

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