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FIU (11-17) vs. No. 1 UCLA? // Eason is ready for challenge

 
Published March 15, 1995|Updated July 6, 2006

Daunting doesn't begin to describe the task at hand for Crystal River's James Eason and his Florida International University teammates as they get set to face top-ranked UCLA in the first round of the NCAA Division I basketball tournament Friday night in Boise, Idaho.

The basketball world might be taken aback that Florida International, with its 11-17 record, is one of the 64 select teams, but for Eason, a 1991 graduate of Crystal River High School, it's not that surprising.

"We've known all along that we're better than our record. We lost a lot of close games early in the season, but when it came to the (Trans-America) tournament, we knew we were capable of winning it all, because by then we were playing our best basketball of the year," Eason said.

The Golden Panthers' resurgence coincided with the insertion of Eason into the starting lineup. He was hampered most of the season by the effects of a dislocated shoulder and tendinitis in the knee, but once healthy, Florida International took off, winning six of its last seven games, including a 68-57 victory over Mercer in the Trans-America final to clinch the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

"We might not be where we are if it hadn't been for the way James played down the stretch," Florida International coach Bob Weltlich said. "He had a great tournament for us, particularly in our overtime win over Southeastern Louisiana in the semifinals (17 points, 10 rebounds).

"He's very talented, has good hands, good timing, and he's a terrific leaper. He really stepped up his play this year. I'm very happy for him. He's a great kid and he's getting the job done in the classroom too."

Eason, a 6-foot-5 center, averages 5.8 points and 4 rebounds, far off the numbers he was compiling while leading Crystal River to a 20-7 record and a district championship. As a senior, Eason averaged 15.7 points, 9 rebounds, and 2.8 blocked shots, was selected the Pirates' most valuable player, and earned a spot on the All-North Suncoast second team. After graduation, he spent two years at North Florida Community College honing his game before moving on to Division I play at Florida International.

The Golden Panthers head into the NCAA tournament as the ultimate underdog. Las Vegas has tabbed UCLA a 29-point favorite, while USA Today puts the odds of Florida International winning the entire tournament at 1-gazillion to 1.

UCLA, which has gone through a 20-year drought since winning its last NCAA title in 1975, legendary coach John Wooden's final season, has its best club in years. Led by the O'Bannon brothers, Ed and Charles, the Bruins finished 25-2 in the rugged Pac-10 and were just one vote shy of being a unanimous selection as the No. 1 team in the country by the Associated Press.

For Eason, a senior criminal justice major on track to graduate, this is what the hard work has been all about.

"We've got great respect for UCLA. There's a reason they're No. 1," he said. "But we're going into the game with the intention of winning. In the TAAC tournament, some of the teams were probably thinking afterwards that they should have taken FIU a little more seriously. That's how we'd like UCLA to feel after Friday."