FIU's men's basketball team won Thursday night at Lousiana-Monroe to clinch its first winning season in 13 years. For a historically moribund program that 11 months ago hired a 29-year-old coach as it lost transfers, recruits and some players after firing the previous coach, what this team has done thus far equates to putting together a Nationwide Series car out of visits to Monster Joe's and Sanford & Son Salvage.
Understand, there's a difference between trash and junk. Trash leaves on the garbage truck. Trash gets incinerated. No use remains. The junkyard's full of usable parts that maybe just need to be polished up, loved up, adjusted a little and they'll work just fine for what you need. It's how junkyard's turn a profit. FIU coach Richard Pitino found those usable parts outside the program, found ways to use those underused parts inside the program and saw what he had: quickness, athleticism, a couple of shooters, no size, but a number of guys who could go hard for enough minutes.
Statistically, if you're looking for a difference between the 2011-12 eight-win Panthers and the 2012-13 16-win Panthers, it's in two numbers produced by FIU's pressure style. Last year, FIU had 424 turnovers and opponents had 406. This year, FIU's got 428 turnovers, but in a much greater number of possessions as they've helped opponents to 506 turnovers. And with Saturday's regular season closer against FAU and the Sun Belt tournament to go, they've come up with 270 steals against 216 for all of last year.
FIU will have better teams under Pitino. But none that have done as much in such a tough situation as this one.