But that’s changed under the direction of two first-year coaches, FAU’s Dusty May and FIU’s Jeremy Ballard.
Both teams are on an upswing after a long stretch where improvement seemed doubtful at best and impossible at worst. That’s why their C-USA pod play matchup on Saturday is more meaningful than the average rivalry game.
“We have a lot of respect for what they’ve done, and how much better they’ve gotten in a short period,” May said. “And overall, it’s great for South Florida to have two competitive teams in Conference USA. And I think it would be good for both teams to be playing well and improving – I think it just helps the rivalry and attention to basketball in this area. So I think all signs are pointing toward a healthy rivalry with FIU. And with a rivalry, you need parity, you need both teams to be competitive.”
Being competitive is the antithesis of FAU and FIU’s performance over the past half-decade.
Neither of the two teams finished .500 or above since joining C-USA in 2013-14. And they haven’t been close, either, with FIU and FAU going 64-94 and 49-106 respectively.
Identical records of 16-11 between the two of them this year with at least five games remaining means they both clinched that seldom-reached .500 mark. A victory on Saturday, however, would not only ensure the victor a winning season, but also a 2-1 head-to-head series lead in the rivalry.
May hopes his team channels that extra motivation into a productive on-court play.
“It’s a rivalry game, so it’s important just like it is protecting our home court,” May said. “The subplots are important, but for us we want to play as well we can every game, and we’re trying to really, really win every game – but especially at home, and especially against a rival.”
FIU plays at a torrid pace offensively, scoring a C-USA leading 84.3 points a game. That high-speed mentality translates to the defensive end, where the Panthers constantly pressure opposing ball handlers with traps.
Getting into a track meet with the Panthers would be an unwise proposition for FAU.
“They force you to play faster than you normally play, and they force you to make good decisions,” May said. “And if you make a mistake, they capitalize on it.”
FIU forward Devon Andrews was unguardable in his two matchups against FAU, averaging 20 points on 58 percent shooting and 67 percent from deep.
His size and ability to stretch the floor has burned FAU more than once. May hopes to prevent him from dominating a third time.
“He’s got such great size and athleticism, and he’s also skilled,” May said. “He shoots the ball from three and really drives it well, and he’s strong enough and athletic enough to finish around the basket.”