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FIU basketball is just past the midway point of the 2012-13 season. The Panthers, 8-8 under first-year coach Richard Pitino, already have equaled last year's victory total under Isiah Thomas. 

Pitino (AJH_20121117_ORP8880)

FIU takes on North Texas and NBA-ready player Tony Mitchell tonight at the FIU arena at 7:30 p.m. If you can't make it out to the game, you can catch the live video broadcast with myself and Jared Schwartz calling the game beginning at 7:20 p.m. CLICK HERE for the FIU/UNT live video broadcast.

I had the chance to talk with Pitino on Wednesday afternoon about the first half of this FIU basketball season. Here is what the FIU coach had to say:

PP: What are your impressions on your team halfway through the season?

RP: I think progress-wise we are where I thought we would be. It’s going to be a major rebuilding project. We started off bringing in 10 guys in less than a month. So to put in a whole new system and to get everybody acclimated I think we are about where we thought we would be. I think being able to sweep Arkansas State, which is a very good team and a very well-coached team is something we are proud of. But we still have a lot of things that we can get better at. Our defense has got to get better. Our field goal defense is not very good, but our offense has been pretty good. They have given us great effort night in and night out and I think people appreciate that.

PP: What have you liked about the offense thus far?

RP: We have done a good job of sharing the ball. You look at Tymell Murphy, who averages 14 points a game. Malik Smith averages 14 points a game. Jerome Frink averages 10 points a game. I like a balanced scoring attack. I don’t want just one guy averaging a bunch of numbers. They have done a good job of pushing the pace. The biggest problem has been the turnovers. The reason why our defensive numbers are so bad is we have a lot of “live ball” turnovers which means that it’s a turnover that leads to a basket for them.

PP: You mentioned that you want the team to get better at field goal percentage defense. What have been some of positives on defense?

RP: We have imposed our style of play on the other teams pretty good through the press, getting steals. The problem more than anything is transition defense after we turn the ball over. When we have gone to the half-court defense we have gotten a little bit better. We have to do a better job of defensive rebounding, but we are small. Our center is 6-5 so it is to be expected.

PP: Halfway through this season, what players have surprised you in the way that they have played?

RP: I would say halfway through the season, Deric Hill, Marco Porcher Jimenez and Juan Ferrales have been pleasant surprises. You look at those three guys and they are walk-ons, but they are as valuable as any players on our team. Juan averages 19 minutes a game. Marco averages 12 and Deric averages 18. Those are guys that are not even scholarship players and they are very good players. They are as valuable to our team as anybody else.

PP: You mentioned about being 6-5 at center. What do you need to see more from 7-footer Ivan Jurkovic and 6-11 Joey De La Rosa in order for their minutes to increase?

RP: Joey was so out of shape when we got here and he just hasn’t worked hard his whole life. And I don’t want to say that he’s lazy, because he has been great since we got to FIU. It’s going to take time with Joey. He is willing to do it and he is a great kid and I think he is going to be a very good player down the road, but it’s just going to take time. He’s been positive. He has a great attitude. He’s just going to continue to develop. He’s learning the system.

It’s tough with Ivan because he has a small leash because it’s just the way it is. We are never really up big so I can’t roll the dice as much as I would like to. Ivan has been good as well. He has shown some good spots. He just has to get healthy. He has some back issues. He has to get 100 percent healthy.

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