Under Zeke’s Wing
With a year under his belt, Marvin Roberts has high expectations for his FIU team.
by Cub Buenning
A year ago, the nation’s leading junior college scorer was a New York City native marooned far from home, smacked dab in Middle America, averaging 30 per for Redlands CC (OK). Although options did exist for Marvin Roberts, there wasn’t the swelling of attention that a sniper of his stature would normally attract. The most likely path for this 6-5 guard pointed towards traveling even farther west to join the Titans of Cal-State Fullerton. Roberts was sure to be a huge signing for the Big West program most known for producing NBA guards Cedric Ceballos and Bruce Bowen. However, his mindset changed after a meeting with an NBA legend. Temporarily banished from Madison Square Garden, Isaiah Thomas was able to sway the kid’s mind and get him to join his newest endeavor down south.
With out the fanfare of a “Decision,” Marvin Roberts decided to take his talents to South Beach and enrolled at Florida International University. Although the program has little hoops history (think Raja Bell and Carlos Arroyo), the chance to be schooled by someone of Zeke’s stature was too much to pass up.
“Out of all the schools that were recruiting me, playing for Coach Thomas was definitely my best option and I never regretted my decision,” gushed Roberts about his current coach. “He was definitely a factor in me coming down here.”
Now the two have a full year in Miami under their belts. Granted last year was a tough one on the scoreboard for the Golden Panthers (they had 7 wins all year), but needless to say, Roberts and Thomas both got their feet wet. Isaiah adopted a team with little experience and just two players over 6-5. However, to his credit, Thomas did bring in one of the best junior college classes in the nation, which included not only Roberts but his teammate at Redlands: guard Antoine Watson, a trigger-happy JuCo gunner.
Roberts came out of the gate quickly, not only scoring at will but also leading the vertically-challenged team in rebounding. With double-doubles in half of his first six NCAA games, Roberts took Thomas’ challenge and immediately became the young team’s leader.
“Playing for Coach Thomas has been a very humbling experience,” admitted Roberts. “Within a year, he taught me how to be more aggressive defensively and as a scorer, he taught me how to score more easily by not having to do as much.”
Roberts flirted with 30 points on a couple nights, and his first year of Division-I ball could be viewed as a success. A volume shooter, the 210-pounder had just a handful of games below double-digits (or as Roberts put it, “when I was not myself”) and finished the year as the Sun Belt Conference’s 6th leading scorer at almost 16/game.
“I came in trying to put my team on my back,” recalls Roberts. “Everything at the beginning of the season went well, scoring-wise, defensively and rebounding. But as you go through the season, I started seeing a lot of double-teams. But I learned to play through that and things picked back up towards the end of the year.”
But as a team, FIU still was only able to procure seven wins, and a meager three in conference. The highlight of the year was surely their December road victory in overtime against the eventual conference champion University of North Texas. But only two more wins were to follow and the season would be punctuated by a nine-game losing streak.
“In the beginning of the year, we were all new,” said Roberts. “We really gelled from the middle to the end. Even though we weren’t winning like we should have been, but, a lot of those (late season) games that we lost were between 1 and 5 points. “
And for a team that likes to push the pace and shoot early and often, that’s a small margin of defeat. Isaiah has his team playing hard, implementing a trapping defense that looks to convert turnovers into easy baskets. Last year, the Golden Panthers’ lack of size and collective inexperience were largely to blame for the losses, but those excuses are no longer in play. With some new size in 6-10 Arkansas-transfer Brandon Moore and thousands of returning minutes in the senior quintet of Roberts, Watson and fellow guards Phil Gary, Stephon Weaver and Tremayne Russell, expectations are high. Roberts put it in basic terms.
“This year is going to be a lot different. We’re going to be really good.”
But will Roberts be good enough to attract the attention of NBA front office types? A big statistical season and some improved perimeter shooting wouldn’t hurt his chances. First things first, though, getting FIU into the top half of the conference pecking order and a chance at some postseason games is in sharp focus.
And Roberts is ready. “The most exciting thing is that I love playing basketball. This is what I grew up on. I am getting closer to my goal. This is my senior year and I’m excited.”