The FIU Panthers men’s basketball team will play its season opener Wednesday night against Flagler College in what’s set to be the first of a five-game homestand.
The last time the Panthers took the court, they defeated Rice in the first round of the C-USA Conference Tournament before the coronavirus halted the season.
Plenty has changed between then and now for FIU and that has opened the door to a number of essential questions that need to be answered after the departure of the team’s top three leading scorers.
Here are three questions that will need to be answered in order to ensure head coach Jeremy Ballard’s third-consecutive winning season.
How will the new starting lineup mesh?
After losing three key starters with Devon Andrews, Osasumwen
Osaghae and Trejon Jacob graduating following the 2019-20 season, there are some big holes to fill.
The most eye-grabbing void to fill will be that of Osaghae, last season’s second-leading scorer and the NCAA’s leader in block shots (3.8). On the offensive end, junior guard Antonio Daye Jr., who averaged 10.6 points per game last season, returns having had the most experience as a starter Daye also led the entire C-USA in assists with 152, which will surely be appreciated as FIU looks for much-needed scoring.
Ballard has not revealed his starters, but based on experience and production, here’s the starting five that most stands out: redshirt junior guard Tevin Brewer, Daye, senior guard Eric Lovett, redshirt senior forward Radshad Davis and senior forward Dimon Carrigan. First off the bench would likely be senior guard Isaiah Banks, who started in 23 games last year.
Last season’s starting five of Jacob, Osaghae, Andrews, Daye and Banks consisted of a 6-foot-5 average height. With the starting five I presented, the average height would for 6-foot-3. That shouldn’t draw too much concern, as Carrigan’s in blocks per game from last season (1.3) should increase as he ups his minute total. And while Brewer (5-foot-8) is shorter than Banks (6-foot-5), his .370 three-point shooting percentage is the highest amongst returnees.
Brewer started in all 10 games he played in last season before suffering a season-ending injury. He heads into his redshirt junior season as an expected impact player.
How will the new additions be utilized?
The Panthers brought in four new players for the 2020-21 season — Radshad Davis, JaVaunte Hawkins, Petar Krivokapic and D.J. Mitchell — each of which are at least a year removed from high school competition.
Davis is the most experienced of the bunch, having transferred from UT Arlington after playing all 32 games, starting in nine, in 2019-20. The 6-foot-4 wing led had the most rebounds at UTA last season with 6.2 and led the team in offensive rebounds (2.3). That, along with his 8.5 points per contest on 49.5 percent shooting, will benefit FIU early on in the season.
Krivokapic is the only true freshman at FIU this season, as he comes in from local school Miami Prep School. The 6-foot-4 guard averaged 25.8 points, 6.3 rebounds and 6.0 assists per outing last season while shooting 63.6 percent from three. Miami Prep, which posted a 41-5 record last year, plays in the Florida Sun Basketball Conference. That means they compete versus the best post-graduate teams in Florida, including teams like Montverde Academy.
Hawkins, a sophomore, averaged 14.2 points and 3.0 assists per match last season at Butler Community College. Mitchell, a junior, also took the junior college route, having averaged a team-high 14.3 points on 43.2 percent shooting at Hutchinson CC last year.
Ballard did not utilize his true freshman — guard Jonathan Nunez and forward Dante Wilcox — much last season. But given Krivokapic’s ability to thrive against top prep school talent, he could see playing time at an early rate. As for Hawkins and Mitchell, the transition from JUCO to Division 1 basketball is always a tough one, so it may take some time for the two to gel well under coach Ballard.
Will the new C-USA format benefit or hurt FIU?
In an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Conference USA revamped its league play to a new 18-game regular season format. The format has schools playing “two games per visit at four select C-USA schools and hosting four other teams for a two-game series while playing a rival opponent one time home and away.”
For an FIU team that finished 3-6 in road conference games last season, this new scheduling may not benefit them. This season, the Panthers travel for conference games against Middle Tennessee, Florida Atlantic, Charlotte, UTEP and Western Kentucky. Aside from MTSU, each team FIU faces on the road is ranked above them in the 2020-21 C-USA Preseason Poll.
On the bright side, FIU collected a 6-3 conference record at Ocean Bank Convocation Center last season. They host Old Dominion, FAU, Marshall, UTSA and Southern Miss at home this season. The Panthers will need to convert those matches into wins in order to garner a respectable resume come postseason time.