The Golden Panthers weren't expected to do much this season – generally picked in the pre-season toward the bottom of the East Division of the Sun Belt Conference – and so far they've lived up to expectation.
They are 3-3, with wins over Eastern Kentucky, Monmouth and Toledo, and losses against West Georgia (D-2), Cleveland State and Washington.
The Huskies beat FIU, 74-51, in Seattle.
This will be only the second road game of the year for FIU, the first against Washington.
FIU has never beaten a nationally-ranked team, having attempted 16 times in its history.
You might remember that UCLA actually has played Florida International, in the first round of the 1995 NCAA Tournament. The #1 seeded Bruins beat #16-seeded FIU, 92-56, on its way to its 11th national championship.
It's tough enough for Florida International that they have to travel to Pauley to play national power UCLA, but it's incredibly bad luck that they'll be without three of their five projected starters for the season. Returning leading scorer Alex Galindo, point guard Josue Soto and forward J.C. Otero are all out with injuries until mid-January. Even FIU's back-up center, Badara N'Diaye, is out for the season. Galindo set the school record for points in a season last year.
That leaves FIU very thin, both in terms of talent and bodies.
Junior forward Nikola Gacesa (6-9, 235) comes from Belgrade, Serbia, the hometown of UCLA's Nikola Dragovic. Gacesa has stepped up in light of the loss of the other three starters to lead the team in scoring so far this season, averaging 10.8 points and 4.3 rebounds. While Gacesa is a big who won't hesitate to shoot from the outside, like his countrymen, he's far more comfortable in the paint.
The other remaining starter is sophomore Tremayne Russell (6-0, 180), the guard who isn't a natural point guard but has taken over some of the point duties in Soto's absense. He's carried the team in a couple of wins this season, averaging 9.2 points per game, but he has more turnovers than assists.
The three other starting spots have been filled by different players in FIU's six games.
With FIU strugging to score, Guard Michael Dominguez (6-3, 185) has started five games because of his lack of hesitation to shoot. He's played the most minutes on the team, while averaging 10.5 points and 4.7 rebounds. He takes just about any slight look he has from behind the three-point line, averaging 6 three-point attempts per game, while making 31%. He's also been prone to turning over the ball.
Sophomore point guard Nick Taylor (5-10, 165) has started five games, and is the guy who settles the team and gets them in their offensive set. He's a decent passer, and looks to set up teammates before looking for his own shot. Taylor doesn't come off the floor very often.
Senior center Russell Hicks (7-0, 250), a transfer from Pepperdine, was expected to pick up some of the inside scoring responsibility, but he's been a bit disappointing, averaging 9 points per game and 5.3 rebounds. He's been yanked for freshman Freddie Asprilla (6-10, 280), who had signed with Miami at one time. Asprilla averages about the same amount of playing time but Asprilla is looking like a better rebounder, averaging 6.3 boards.
Hicks, though, can be a very effective low-post scorer that FIU has gone to this season when their offense has bogged down.
Freshman guard Harley Fuller (6-1, 180) comes off the bench because he's a decent defender, but is playing far too many minutes for his capabilities right now.
The Golden Panthers have really struggled to score, and have tried to make up for it with effort on defense. They've tried to be very active on the perimeter, trapping and trying to force steals, while relying on their big bodies inside to limit an opponent's inside scoring.
The size of Hicks and Asprilla really bothered Washington's Jon Brockman, who FIU held to just 8 points.
FIU, though, hasn't been able to sustain defensive effort, allowing opposing teams to get out in transition in particular. UCLA, with its quickness in the backcourt and slew of finishers, will try to push the ball and get as many baskets in transition as possible.
It will be interesting to see how much Ben Howland plays J'mison Morgan in this one. It would seem like a natural chance for him to get increased minutes, with FIU actually having some big bodies for him to match up against. It might be a very good opportunity for Morgan to get experience, since he looks to be UCLA's best back-to-the-basket scorer.
UCLA, though, will dominate this game with its defense. If you throw out the 80 points FIU scored against Monmouth, who is 0-6, they're averaging 54 points per game. Washington, with its spotty defense, held FIU to 51 points.
In other words, it's going to be hard for the Golden Panthers to get to 50 points against the Bruins.
Florida International 50