Toppers to take on surprisingly good FIU team

Lucas Aulbach

When the Toppers take the court in Miami tomorrow, they will face possibly the best team they’ve earned a win against this year.

WKU beat Florida International 76-63 at home on Dec. 27, their first win since losing senior point guard Jamal Crook to an injury.

At the time, the Panthers were 4-5 and struggling under first-year coach Richard Pitino.

Fast forward a month and a half, and FIU, currently No. 3 in the Sun Belt east division and No. 5 overall in the conference, is the only team with a winning record WKU has beat this season.

Sophomore forward George Fant said FIU’s turnaround speaks volumes about the current state of basketball in the Sun Belt — while Middle Tennessee State currently holds a three-game lead at the top of the conference, there is no clear second-best team.

“FIU wasn’t really clicking, and they’re picking it up,” Fant said at a press conference Monday. “All these teams in conference are capable of doing anything on any given night. You never know what will happen.”

The Panthers have been beating teams by winning the turnover battle. FIU leads the conference with 9.8 steals per game, and its opponents are averaging almost three more turnovers than the Panthers per game.

FIU has also been solid from beyond the arc — the team averages seven made three-pointers per game, good for second in the Sun Belt.

Saturday’s game could have big implications in Sun Belt Conference Tournament seeding, too. They may be out of the running for a No. 1 seed, but the Toppers can still lock up a first-round bye in the tournament with a strong finish to the year.

Parity between teams in the middle of the Sun Belt pack has WKU currently sixth in the conference — the top five schools are excluded from play in the first round.

While a bye would be preferable, WKU is a perfect example of why one isn’t an absolute necessity. Last season, the Toppers slumped through the season before getting hot late and, as a No. 7 seed, were able to sweep the competition in the conference tournament and lock up a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

Coach Ray Harper, though, said he would rather have a day off in this year’s tourney.

“Would you like a bye? Yes, that means you’ve really played well these last six games and earned the opportunity to sit and watch on day one,” Harper said. “It’s definitely not necessary.”

The tournament, which begins March 8 in Hot Springs, Ark., is not something the Toppers are thinking about now, though, Harper said.

The coach said his team is more focused on improving each day.

“We’re trying to get better every day so that we at least give ourselves a chance to win,” Harper said.