Disney does Cinderella, animated and live action. Conference USA doesn't.
No seed lower than No. 9 has won C-USA's men's basketball tournament. Only two such seeds made it to the third day. So, when Dennis Mavin's heaved FIU onto SportsCenter and into the second round against No. 2 seed UTEP, you knew the thrilling finish either would spark a historic, miraculous run or be an emotional Olympus before UTEP brought that day-after-ULTRA feeling.
UTEP 83, FIU 71.
On the upside, if you're going to go two and barbecue, at least they're in Birmingham, home of some darn fine barbecue. And FIU won't have to pay that local high school band to stand-in for the FIU Pep Band kept home by finances (not sure which department is responsible, but FIU should be beyond that).
FIU loses leading scorer Dennis Mavin and starter Kris Gulley among its main cogs. Mavin's ability to score one-on-one to one-on-three will be tough to replace, although that might force the Panthers to develop better ball movement, which would make for a better offense overall. Also, this season was Transition Year Part II under Anthony Evans. Next year, with a third season of recruiting, second without big NCAA sanctions hanging over his head, should be the year Evans molds and cooks the Panthers into the kind of team he wants them to be.
I don't know if I'd call FIU a Conference USA favorite next year, but I'd be surprised if they didn't reach the conference tournament above .500 overall and among the top three seeds.
A few things about FIU's Conference USA tournament opener against Texas-San Antonio today at 1 p.m. while I try to find somewhere that'll consistently update me on the NCAA Zone Diving stuff...
*When teams see a future opposing player and say, "That right there is a problem," they either deal with the problem or figure they'll live with it and deal with everything else. FIU's opponents tend to take the latter approach.
Adrian Diaz, all 6-10 of him, is the problem FIU presents opponents. He's got good touch with decent range at the offensive end -- 60.9 percent from the field -- and is sixth in the nation in blocked shots without being so slap happy he gets way out of position.
(Digression: Is the person who nicknamed Diaz "the Hialeah Hammer," a name that belongs on a well-known thug or fantastic handyman, the same person who came up with "Paws Up," which makes it sound like the animal in question is on its back and dead? If so, stop naming stuff. Or make your next suggestion, "Sunblazers.")
Teams have learned to let Diaz get his, try to make things difficult for senior guard Dennis Mavin then say to the rest of the Panthers "And, what?" FIU needs to get an offensive answer to that from Daviyon Draper mid-range or inside, Ray Rodriguez/Marco Porcher Jimenez from three or Kris Gulley from anywhere.
*Inability to consistently move the ball for open outside shots makes FIU too reliant on Diaz inside. There's a negligible difference in success percentages in conference games -- 32.3 for FIU, 33.7 for opponents -- but the Panthers drown in the volume. Opponents have hit 136 three-pointers to 76 for FIU or 7.56 per game to 4.22. That's nearly a 10-point per game difference.
*FIU gets the defensive side of the game, tying UAB for the conference lead in allowing only 41.0 percent shooting from the field. They can't let teams shoot 25 to 30 free throws a game, however. Speaking of which...
*I don't think I've covered a season with more consistently bad free throw shooting from both teams. The only reason FIU's opponents, 64.3 percent from the line, aren't more embarrassed is that FIU sank them at only 63.5 percent. In a tournament situation, it's tough to win four games in four days without at least above average free throw shooting.
I first heard this old saw -- "My Daddy says there are two things that don't last too long -- dogs that chase cars and teams that don't hit their free throws" -- from Wyoming coach Benny Dees early in the 1987 NCAA tournament. Over the next two weeks, I watched Indiana win the national championship partially because three consecutive opponents went four of 10, 11 of 19 and 10 of 20 from the line, including missing late one-and-ones.
*It goes without saying if a 20-turnover game gets FIU tickets on a next day flight home.
Redshirt junior center Adrian Diaz's 82 blocked shots, easily an FIU single season record, boosted him onto the Conference USA All-Defensive Team, announced Tuesday morning. Diaz ranks sixth in the nation with 3.06 blocks per game.
"I just did what I thought I had to do to help the team win," Diaz said. "In hihg school, I was always an offensive threat. College made me realize it's not all about offense."
The conference named UTEP 6-7 forward Julian Washburn Defensive Player of the Year and Old Dominion junior guard Trey Freeman as Newcomer of the Year. Charlotte 6-4 guard Torin Dorn was Freshman of the Year. UAB freshman Chris Cokley was Sixth Man of the Year.
Comprising the All-Defensive Team with Diaz and Washburn were Charlotte senior guard Pierra Henry; Louisiana Tech's Michael Kyser and Kenneth "Speedy" Smith.
FIU plays Texas-San Antonio in the first game of the Conference USA tournament Wednesday at 1 p.m. Eastern time.
Center Adrian Diaz should be on Conference USA's All-Defensive team, which will be announced Tuesday. Monday, the league honored him as Player of the Week after his triple double Saturday against Alabama-Birmingham.
And it wasn't the usual points-rebounds-assists triple double. Diaz scored 14, pulled down 12 rebounds and blocked 13 shots, tying a Conference USA single game blocks record set by Marshall's Hassan Whiteside -- yes, that Hassan Whiteside -- in 2010. It's also the most in a college game this season.
Diaz had 17 points, eight rebounds, four blocked shots against Middle Tennessee Thursday night. He's sixth in the nation in blocked shots.
The next FIU women's basketball coach gets at least one potential building block out of this year's disastrous three-win, 0-for-the-conference season -- redshirt freshman forward Kiandre'a Pound, named Conference USA Freshman of the Year Monday.
C-USA named Pound Freshman of the Week six times, by far the most of any player this season, so this is A=B, B=C, A=C stuff. Pound led FIU in scoring, 14.8 points per game, and was second in rebounding.
The men, the No. 10 seed, play No. 7 Texas-San Antonio Wednesday at 1 p.m. Eastern time in the first game of the Conference USA tournament. A win there would pit FIU against No. 2 seed UTEP at 1 p.m. Eastern on Thursday.
In Conference USA games, perhaps the only equitable way to use statistics to compare within the conference, FIU senior guard Dennis Mavin averaged 17.8 points per game (third in the league) and 3.28 assists per game (ninth).
That's why Mavin was named Second Team All-C-USA today.
Tuesday, the conference will announce the All-Defensive team, which should include center Adrian Diaz, sixth in the nation in blocked shots (3.06 per game).
Sunday, redshirt freshman forward Kiandre'a Pound, six times Conference USA's Freshman of the Week, logically was named to the conference's All-Freshman women's basketball team.
Senior Kris Gulley, a transfer from Long Beach State and working toward his criminal justice graduate degree, was named to the Conference USA men's basketball All-Academic team Friday.
The women's basketball season ends Saturday to the relief of all concerned. They didn't come close to qualifying for the Conference USA tournament. Don't be surprised if center Marita Davydova remembers this season more fondly than anyone else, however.
She played this season after being ineligible last season in a paperwork screwup by the previous Compliance Department. Individually, her 9.9 rebounds per game puts her among the national leaders. And, Thursday, Conference USA announced the economics major's 3.7 grade point average put her on the league's All-Academic women's basketball team.
The men end a truly weird regular season with Saturday's Senior Night, at which they'll honor seniors Gulley, Dennis Mavin, Marco Porcher Jimenez.
In conference only games, Mavin averages 17.8 points per game, third in C-USA. Jimenez averages 14.5 minutes per game as a three-point specialist. Gulley averages 4.1 points and 3.2 rebounds per game.
Softball starts its conference schedule with weekend three-game series against 13-5 Marshall, a doubleheader Saturday at 4 p.m. and a 1 p.m. Sunday game.
The series features two of the conference's best hitters. From FIU, there's sophomore Stephanie Texeira, hitting .528, third in the conference, with six homers, 26 RBI and 1.057 slugging percentage. Marshall's Morgan Zerkle hits .531 with 11 RBI and goes when she gets on -- 27 steal attempts, 25 successful, almost twice as much as anyone else in C-USA.
The City of Birmingham, quivering like Rock Ridge before Mongo, closed all public facilities Wednesday in fear of what places in the former Confederacy consider major snowfall. This condensed the Conference USA Indoor Track & Field Championships to a one-day event.
Not so condensed were the throws of FIU junior Raquarra Ishmar, who turned today into Throw Forward Thursday by winning the women's weight throw and finishing second in the shot put.
Ishmar (63 feet, 4 inches), junior Chelsea Goburne (59-1/4) and sophomore Chandra Fullwood (56-3 1/4) gave FIU its strongest team performance of the day, a 1-4-6 finish, in the weight throw. Going into the last two throws, the 61-2 from Western Kentucky's Janessa Jackson held the lead. Ishmar cranked off a 62-footer to take the lead, then muscled out the 63-4 on her last throw to hammer home who the alpha female was in this event.
Ishmar finished a solid second in the shot, her 50-8 3/4 being 1-8 1/2 ahead of third place Rachel Polk of Southern Miss and 8-2 behind Rice blowout winner, Claire Uke.
In the men's triple jump, junior Marcus Ghent reached 50-2 3/4 to finish second by 4 3/4 inches behind Western's Cyrus Johnson. Ghent also picked up points with a sixth place long jump of 22-8 1/2.
The team standings found the women finishing ninth of 13 and the men finishing ninth of nine.
Jake Schumann, FIU's coach the last three seasons, knows the way to Felsberg Field. So does former FIU pitching assistant coach Sharon Palma.
So, the Ole Miss bus shouldn't get lost on the way to Felsberg Field at FIU Softball Stadium for Friday's opening of this weekend's Felsberg Invitational. The 8-4 Rebels are scheduled to play Bethune-Cookman at 2. Bethune will rest while FIU and Ole Miss get it on at 4:30. FIU plays Bethune at 7 p.m.
Last week, FIU saw the fourth member of last year's coaching staff (current FIU head coach Gator Rebhan was an assistant last year), current Texas State assistant coach Kelly Kretschman. It wasn't a happy reunion for the Panthers, losing 8-0.
Manhattan comes down for its four-game winter beating from FIU. Two years ago, the Jaspers got bombed in the first two games and outscored 40-17 for the three-game series.
By the way, did you know that FIU got back from last week's tournament in South Carolina around 7:30 a.m. after a 13-hour bus ride and some players had to hit class immediately? That's unfair to the student-athletes.
There should be a rule that teams have to fly if the road trip ends over a set number of hours away from the main campus and the team has class the next day.
SWIMMING & DIVING
FIU coach Randy Horner's contract is up at the end of April, two months after FIU won the Conference USA women's swimming & diving title. That's producing when the time's right.
Horner makes just over $57,000 in a contract that began when FIU wasn't close to competitive in the Sun Belt and ends with FIU being one of the nation's best mid-major teams. They've also been the top academic team on campus three of the previous four years.
That's the kind of work that'll attract attention if a Power Five school with manatees in the pool wants someone who can transform the team into motorboats. And that school will offer a significant raise. Just as an example, Michigan State clearly doesn't care about its swim program. The Spartans annually finish in the bottom two at the Big Ten meet and have for two decades. Yet, head coach Matt Gianiodis has held that job since October 2003.
All those signs of department apathy toward a sport and Gianiodis still gets paid over $76,000 while living in East Lansing, Michigan, a cheaper market than Miami. They might be paying Gianiodis extra for staying in East Lansing, which one Michigan State graduate I talked with Thursday called "Siberia" and about which Sports Illustrated writer Dan Jenkins quipped, "It looks like Stalingrad."
Anyway, that's just an example of why FIU might want to give Horner more than a little bump when it puts rings on the swimming & diving women's fingers.
Some might wonder if former FIU assistant coach Desma Thomas Bateast, now an assistant coach at South Florida, might want to come back to rebuild the program. Putting the hard hat on to deal with this catastrophe takes a relatively young, energetic coach and she's familiar with the place.
That doesn't always work in the school's favor, understand...
You can skip this unless you're an athletics business wonk. Or just curious.
A few things about the deal with adidas, announced by FIU in January as a five-year deal worth around $2.6 million:
*FIU gets adidas footwear, clothes, equipment and accessories, but not for free. They get sort of a Costco deal on stuff -- shoes at 45 percent off retail price; clothes, equipment and accessories 50 percent off retail for everyone but baseball/softball, which gets only 37.5 percent off The Price is Right price. But baseball/softball gets theirs elsewhere, as you’ll soon see. FIU must spend at least $300,000 each year, which is air hockey money for a properly-funded Division I athletic program.
*If FIU does spend $300,000 each year, it gets an additional $260,000 retail value of adidas product (stuff) in 2015-16, 2016-17, 2017-18, $285,000 in 2018-19 and $310,000 in 2019-2020.
*For the football team using adidas footballs in practices and games, FIU gets $10,000 retail value of product each year.
*Under “Athletic Department Fund Raising”, adidas gives FIU $15,000 of retail product value each year.
*There’s various bonuses for team achievement and Coach of the Year. The largest realistically attainable one is $20,000 retail value product for a football team bowl appearance.
*Baseball gets the most extra stuff. Softball will get the same stuff in “an amount to be agreed upon when Adidas introduced these hardgoods” according to the contract. (Yes, I think it should be “introduces” but I’m quoting directly from the contract, so…)
Each year, FIU Baseball gets:
Up to 48 wood bats, up to 42 non-wood bats, 6 aluminum fungo bats, up to 36 fielder’s gloves, up to 40 wheeled locker equipment bags, up to 40 individual duffel bags, 6 coach’s briefcases, 5 wheeled catcher bags (two to be used for equipment), up to 96 pairs of batting gloves (replaced by wear and tear), up to 96 pairs of wristbands, up to 25 batting helmets, up to 6 sets of catching gear.
432 fitted baseball hats
$34,000 retail value of free product.
$4,000 retail value of free product for the head coach
The only other individual in the athletic department who gets free product is the athletic director, who gets $10,000 retail value of free product each year.
The Pelonis Space Heater! Yes, this little baby, brought by me to Saturday's game from the home it's served since the 2009-10 winter days that dipped into the 30s, warmed fingers still chilled from Friday night at first pitch Saturday. The base temperature actually was cooler Saturday, but Friday night's wind dropped the late game temperature from the 50s to much lower.
(One swimmer from a cold weather climate told me she left Friday's game in the fourth inning. Too cold.)
Anyway, I came ready for Saturday. FIU? Nyet. Not the women's basketball team (79-56), not the men's basketball team (75-42...what?), not the baseball team, which went face down 9-2 and never challenged.
Head coach Turtle Thomas called it a game you "flush and move on." He criticized freshman pitcher Garrett Cave for falling too far behind in counts, the defense for committing seven errors, the batters for being too passive at the plate. On this last count, the best example came during garbage time, the eighth inning. Three consecutive hitters, with men on first and second, looked at strike three.
At least the softball team split, losing to Memphis 2-0 before coming from behind to mercy rule LIU 12-4 in the FIU Invitational. Freshman shortstop Ashley Balans from Plantation American Heritage made her first college home run a grand slam. Gabriella Spallone doubled in two runs. Stephanie Texeira went two for three. FIU entered the fourth inning down 4-3 and left it up 10-4.
Weirdness abounded Saturday night on Replacement Lime Court at FIU Arena.
The game briefly stopped while a little girl crawled under one of the new cabanas to retrieve a ball knocked under there. For the first time in all the basketball games I've covered courtside (my first was 1987), my computer got smacked by a ball. Poor job by me -- I saw the ball coming, but wanted to finish the thought I was writing -- but good show by the Dell, which never stopped working. The iPad with the in-game stats got knocked two screens silly.
On the court, instead of FIU turned scrambly by a press, UTEP looked overwhelmed when FIU raised its defensive energy in the second half. Instead of FIU looking like eight Shaquille O'Neals at the free throw line, the Panthers dropped in 15 of 19, an excellent 78.9 percent. Meanwhile, three times in the second half, UTEP players missed both free throws and the Miners finished 18 of 32, a near-comedic 56.3 percent.
After the game, FIU senior guard Dennis Mavin said, "It's frustrating because you want to win, but at the same time, it just shows we can play with anybody in this league and we're a tough team like anybody else."
Daviyon Draper, who had 21 points, seconded that with "We can play with anybody in this league, just some of the small things need to be cleaned up. We can definitely see improvement from the beginning of the season to now."
Mavin explained his hopping, well-defended, off-balance three-pointer at the horn off an inbounds play that began with 2.4 seconds left.
"The play wasn't even for me," he said. "I was supposed to come up, all the attention was going to be on me and it was going to be a flare screen for Kris (Gulley). But somehow it messed up. It wasn't the look was supposed to get because I wasn't supposed to get the ball."
Also, Conference USA's leading scorer in conference games left the game in the first half after taking a tumble to the floor. UTEP got a foul on the five-on-four power play as Mavin writhed.
"I just got tripped up and fell on my (left) hand," he said. "My hand's been bothering me for two weeks now."
I'm really sorry I missed the halftime acknowledgement at one of this week's home basketball games of the swimming & diving team's undefeated dual meet season, the first in FIU history. You know, when the team was brought out on the court, drizzled with applause and wished luck at the Conference USA meet. I know Athletics wanted to do this for them because the next really good event crowd probably will be the next men's basketball home games, by which time the water women will be starting the water fight with Rice and Western Kentucky at the conference meet in Knoxville.
Wait, that didn't happen? Oh...
The statheads at ESPN came out with their first FPI power ranking for 2015, based on offense, defense and special teams efficiency, returning starters and (most subjective of all) recruiting rank.
FIU's 87th and fifth in Conference USA behind Marshall, Western Kentucky, Louisiana Tech and Middle Tennessee State.
I doubt an FIU coach came into this season with more optimism softball's Gator Rebhan.
Rebhan, an assistant under Jake Schumann last year, gets a Division I job after two decades of coaching travel softball and high school softball in South Florida. And the roster, which loses only three players from a 33-win team and includes seven of his former travel softball players, has enough talent that Conference USA coaches voted FIU co-favorite with UAB to win the championship on Felsberg Field at FIU Softball Stadium in May.
Rebhan told the Board of Trustees Athletics Committee last fall that the Panthers could be a 40-win, Conference USA champion. He saw no reason to back off of that Thursday afternoon.
"We're very capable of reaching that. We're a very athletic team," Rebhan said. "Our pitching is strong. Our defense is strong and fast. Our hitting, one through nine, should be solid. We don't have one thing that stands out. We're well-balanced. Their attitude is excellent. They're really loose, which is good."
Hours later, the Panthers backed up their coach by crushing Houston in its season opener 8-1. Sophomore Stephanie Texeira, last year's Conference USA Freshman of the Year, bashed out a double, a home run and four RBI. Freshman Ashley Belans doubled in another two runs. Panthers bats ruined Houston starter Shelby Miller the way they would a Shelby Mustang, sending her back to the garage totaled after one and a third innings.
Meanwhile, junior Corrine Jenkins diffused nine hits over seven innings. The Jenkins-Shelby Graves right-handed combination will be backed up by Brianna Bartuccio, a transfer from Austin Peay.
Sophomore Ashley Leon played second base ("defensively, she's phenomenal" Rebhan said), had two hits and hits second. Rebhan figures she'll shore up the second spot, which he considered an FIU weakness last year. Then, it's FIU's Pitchers Pounders: Texeira, sophomore Gabby Spallone and senior Krystal Garcia.
Texeira came out of Gulliver with credentials -- the first high school All-American to come to FIU -- and exceeded them last year. She hit .408 with 11 home runs, 41 RBI and a .736 slugging percentage. According to FIU athletic director Pete Garcia, Texeira let him know she wanted Rebhan as their know coach and he listened. Spallone also made C-USA's All-Freshman Team after hitting .319 with seven home runs and 33 RBI.
Friday, up at the Sand Dollar Classic in Gulf Shores, Alabama, FIU gets Lamar and McNeese State. Saturday, the Panthers face Eastern Kentucky and Alabama. Their first home game is a week from Friday, against Memphis.
CoachingSearch.com reported that FIU wide receivers coach and quarterbacks coach Cam Turner would be skipping to the NFL's Carolina Panthers to be assistant to the wide receivers coach. So, let's recap...
Cam Turner coached The Citadel's wide receivers and special teams for one season. That was his experience as a hands-on coach when new FIU head coach and father Ron Turner ("the best quarterbacks coach in the country" according to Pete Garcia upon hiring) hired Cam Turner to be the quarterbacks coach AND the wide receivers coach in 2013.
Ron Turner was disappointed with the quarterbacks in 2013, disappointed with the wide receivers in 2013 and 2014, disappointed with the whole passing game both seasons. But the guy in charge of those two units in his second and third years of hands-on coaching gets lifted to an NFL staff headed by Ron Rivera. That's Ron Rivera, defensive coordinator for Chicago during some of the same years the Bears offensive coordinator was...Ron Turner.
Pete Pelegrin was calling Thursday's game for the PantherVision webcast when Kris Gulley, in pursuit of a loose ball, crashed across the table, knocking off Pelegrin's glasses and scattering some of the radio equipment.
It worked as metaphor for FIU's 14-turnover, outscored-by-20 second half in the loss to Texas-San Antonio
At the end of a long, eventful day at Camp Mitch, men's basketball head coach Anthony Evans, center Adrian Diaz and guard Dennis Mavin talked about home crowds and strange schedules.
They'd just stomped FAU, which played like something you'd see out of Fred Sanford's yard (the Owls missed more bunnies than Elmer Fudd), with one dominating half of solid defense and crisp offense, then one half of not falling asleep out of exhausted boredom. I've never seen a final score less reflective of a game than Tuesday's 64-56 Panthers win.
They spoke of being happy to be back in front of another good, into-it crowd at FIU Arena, their first home game in 18 days. Energized by that crowd, too, and good thing for the third game in a five-game, 10-day stretch that, like the 18 days between home games created by moving the FAU game to Tuesday for the Miss Universe pageant.
(When's the last time a Division I team with its own on-campus home arena had a blocs of 44 days and 18 days between home games in the same season?).
That started with 12 days off.
"We tried to work on the things we weren't doing well. Defensively. Offensively, shoot a little more," FIU coach Anthony Evans said. "I think it was evident during the game in Charlotte, guys got hot. Just trying to do things to keep the team as on point as possible. When you have a long layoff, hyou worry about rust. I think (Old Dominion) played really well when we played them. It took us that first game to get back into some sort of rhythm."
Also, FIU moved the ball. Sometimes, watching the Panthers on offense, you see five guys seeming to operate as independently as five University of California campuses. Not so Tuesday.
Evans said he'll keep practice to under an hour today and Friday to keep legs fresh for Thursday's game against Texas-San Antonio and Saturday's contest against UTEP.
Ironic, appropriate or both that the first women's basketball home game after Cindy Russo's retirement is against Old Dominion, alma mater of Russo and longtime associate coach Inge Nissen?
You don't need a shot of Old Grand Dad to know that FIU's got a shot at Old D if they find their defense. it's the only area of clear superiority for the Monarchs. In Conference USA play, Old Dominion has given up only 58.9 points per game and 35.9 shooting from the field. FIU's given up 74.5 and 45.8. And that's with a conference-leading three-point shooting percentage defense of 27.2 percent.
Old Dominion's men share four characteristics with the FIU men -- good defense and conference losses to Western Kentucky and at Alabama-Birmingham and Middle Tennessee State. But the Monarchs lead the conference in rebounding margin while FIU is last in assists per game and scoring offense. Not a good combination when you've got a ball stagnant team against a good defense. We'll see whether the 12-day gap swung FIU's offensive game toward the acutely sharpened or the obtusely dulled.
FIU's arena-based teams could move wholly back into their spaces today, the last day any Miss Universe people or stuff should be in the arena or parking lot.
That's according an FIU synopsis of the agreement between the school and Miss Universe.
A seat count from various photos taken late last week after the arena got set up for the contest comes up with 1,118 chairs + an estimated 1,500 bleacher seats on each side. That's 4,118, but the Miss Universe folks got 1,000 comp tickets per night. Preliminaries, Dress Rehearsal and the Finals sold out. FIU's $5 per ticket gets them approximately $46,770.
The Athletics release, which already downgraded the FIU benefit estimate from $400,000 earlier in January to $330,000, included $50,000 to $70,000 in ticket revenue and assumed $140,000 of state matching funds on the First Generation Scholarship Fund.
Anyway, it's back to normal for the FIU Athletics hoi polloi, whose staffing, workload and pay sometimes remind me of this scene from the 1985 classic DC Comics Crisis on Infinite Earths No. 8.
Freshman diver Rebecca Quensel's 1-meter and 3-meter wins against Florida Gulf Coast Saturday earned her Conference USA Diver of the Week for the fifth time this season. Coincidentally, that makes her the fifth diver to with a season's quintet of Diver of the Week awards.
Sorry that we missed forward Kiandre'a Pound racking up her second consecutive C-USA Freshman Player of the Week award Monday.
The surprise for many at FIU was that Cindy Russo returned for the 2014-15 season.
Since the start of the 2012-13 season, the standard prediction around the athletic department had Russo's retirement dovetailing with the end of star guard Jerica Coley's eligibility in 2014.
Last season's ineligiblity of 6-3 Marita Davydova infuriated Russo just as much at the end of the season as the beginning. She never flat said it, but she had to know that dropped the ceiling for Coley's last team and her last team with postseason potential. With some semblance of an inside/outside game, FIU could put together a winning season and would hold a puncher's chance in the Conference USA tournament. Without it, you get what happened -- FIU rising only to the level of Coley's superpowers. Once those ran out like a power ring's charge in the 25th hour against eventual champ Middle Tennessee State in the conference tournament semis, that was it.
Russo returned for one more year, I think, almost out of reflex. This is what she's done every fall since 1977. Routines beget full body muscle memory. But fatigue strikes earlier and earlier as the years pass until the time the remembering muscle tells the mind, "Forget this, I'm tired."
All college coaches essay the role of parent on some level. For years, Russo had been the caretaker for her elderly mother. That's not a Wikipedia example of "sandwich generation" but it's still "sandwich generation." Most "sandwich generation" folks don't go on bi-weekly business trips to places like Bowling Green, Kentucky or Huntington, West Virginia (in January).
Soon after Russo's mother died in late December, rumors began around FIU athletics that she'd retire. Worn down even before being weakened by the flu that refuses to leave her -- I almost wanted to pour chicken soup through the cell phone when we spoke Thursday afternoon, she sounded so bad -- she saw the rest of the season looming like K2.
The vastness of Russo's career can't be overstated, both as far as FIU and women's basketball.
When she began as an assistant coach at 1970s powerhouse Old Dominion, many families actively discouraged their girls from participating in team sports. Heck, many girls actively discouraged girls from participating in team sports. Not feminine enough, you know. Many states didn't have high school girls basketball tournaments. Indiana, home of the most storied boys high school tournament, didn't start a girls counterpart until 1976, the same year the Summer Olympics first included women's basketball. Pro leagues? Please. The NCAA didn't sanction college women's basketball, but rather the AIAW (Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women) did. The first AIAW national championship game to be nationally televised ended the 1977-78 season, Russo's first at FIU, where a few structures dotted a lot of space. Parking not a problem back then.
Now, well, look around. Despite the roles sexism and homophobia still play in college women's basketball, if you don't see the vast differences from 37-plus years ago, you're too obtuse to read this blog. FIU continues to grow an inexorably as The Blob.
Of course, Cindy Russo would've liked to finish this season, though it looks headed for a C-USA tournament one-and-done. No woman in sports Russo's age with any stature got there by leaving anything unfinished. All those women fought more battles than Patton just to get to the game time fight.
Russo's earned the right to say she's too tired to keep fighting.
Freshman quarterback Alex McGough started 11 games for the football team while freshman running back Alex Gardner tied redshirt junior Anthon Samuel for the led the team in rushing. Freshman swimmer Silvia Scalia and freshman diver Rebecca Quensel each have compiled four Conference USA performer of the week awards.
And now redshirt freshman forward Kiandre'a Pound has four Conference USA Freshmen of the Week awards. Pound averaged 19.0 points and 9.5 rebounds in FIU's losses at Western Kentucky and Marshall.
There used to be a saying among basketball coaches that "you can't press a good team." My first 21+ years in basketball country provided little evidence to the contrary, save No. 14 Cleveland State upsetting No. 3 Indiana in the first round of the 1986 NCAA tournament. I still believe an experienced, well-drilled team dismantles all but the most athletic presses and traps.
But "experienced" and "well-drilled" rarely describe even the best college-affiliated basketball teams these days. So many rosters get a remix each year. Players declare for the draft as soon as somebody tells them they have a shot. There's almost as much player movement between schools as there is between NBA or NBA D-League teams. Coaches seem to find it easier to get a team trapping and pressuring properly than getting a lineup proficient at dismantling it.
FIU can be a good team. They'd be better than 9-9 without spending eight consecutive road games during 44 days between home games. They're also a new mix of players -- Adrian Diaz, Kris Gulley, Daviyon Draper, Tashawn Desir, Ray Rodriguez all playing significant minutes this year, none on the floor for FIU last year.
That said, Saturday night, in a game between the two Conference USA schools without dedicated video people in their athletic departments, the Panthers looked completely discombobulated by Western Kentucky's press, improperly so. When Daviyon Draper said after the game that the press surprised the Panthers, I thought not sure why it should have, but I'm glad it did. I'd hate for a team to look that stunned seeing something they knew was coming.
Then, FIU either couldn't figure out who was supposed to stay back and help or when they got through, didn't know what to do with the numbers and space. FIU coach Anthony Evans said afterward he thought the Panthers got complacent in the second half and stopped attacking overall.
FIU maintained a lead most of the time Adrian Diaz sat with first half foul trouble, then slowly lost it before halftime. Diaz wound up playing only 25 minutes. After his second consecutive game with limited minutes by two early fouls, Diaz said he's got to stay out of foul trouble. The questionable quality of Thursday's calls on Diaz created a karmic situation satisfied by the way the refs turned a blind eye to Diaz repeatedly committing his fifth foul. Saturday, there wasn't much to beef about either way.
The Panthers have 12 days to sharpen themselves against the defensive schemes that caused their offensive malfunctions three of the last four games. This would've been the second travel partner game week, when you have one conference game because you're playing your travel partner, FAU in the case of FIU.
(For those unfamiliar with the travel partner system, it works thusly -- when FIU plays on a Thursday at, say, Marshall Feb. 26, FAU will play at Western Kentucky. Saturday, Feb. 28, FIU and FAU will switch opponents, just as Marshall and Western Kentucky did this week. So, there's only one conference game travel partner week, which was the first week of conference play and will be this week for everybody but FIU and FAU.)
The moving of the game from next Saturday to Feb. 3 to accommodate the Miss Universe pageant creates the almost-fortnight gap followed by five games in 10 days. At least the last two, Feb. 5 against Texas-San Antonio and Feb. 7 against UTEP, are at home.
Great crowd again, by the way. I think three of eight cabanas were in use.