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Hoops season on the horizon

Stopped by Barnes and Nobles today and did a little college basketball magazine shopping to see what the experts think of the Hurricanes' chances this season before getting a look at them Saturday when they have their first practice of the season.

So what did Street & Smith’s, Lindy’s, The Sporting News, Athlon Sports and the ACC Handbook say? Basically, it’s going to be a long year for the Hurricanes. None of the magazines picked UM to finish higher than 10th in Atlantic Coast Conference (Athlon had UM dead last) and none had Miami even reaching the NIT this season. All cited the losses of guards Rob Hite and Guillermo Diaz, one of the programs most prolific scoring combinations ever, and the improvement of the conference as a whole as the reason. Makes sense on paper. UM had nobody on the Preseason All-ACC list in Athlon, The Sporting News, Street and Smith or Lindy’s. Only power forward Anthony King was named to the preseason all-conference third team in the ACC Handbook.

FrankhaithSo are the Hurricanes in for a long season? Rob Hite doesn’t think so (I spoke to him at Heat camp, you can see the video clip here) and neither does coach Frank Haith. Me and two reporters from the other local papers had lunch with coach Haith a few weeks ago (a UM tradition by the way) and he seemed real optimistic this Canes team can be a postseason threat.

While we didn’t interview Haith because this was an invitation to lunch and not a press conference, he did provide some extra insight into what the team has been doing in the off-season and the progress he has seen. Before I get to that, though, I’m letting you know I plan on coming back here and filling you in on how Saturday’s first practice went. But for now, in my first basketball blog of the preseason, I’ll try and hit on a few questions fans may have and discuss some of the stories fans should be keeping an eye on as the season begins.

1. Who is going to replace Guillermo Diaz and Rob Hite as the team’s go-to scorers?

By far the biggest question mark heading into this season will be who Haith gets to replace the 33.6 combined points a game Diaz and Hite provided. As it stands, UM finished last in the ACC in scoring last season and 182nd in the NCAA with 67.9 points a game. The first way to answer this question is by telling you there will be a whole new philosophy this season with UM’s offense. Instead of playing the three guard set Haith has employed the past two seasons, this UM team will play a more traditional style – a point guard, shooting guard, wing forward and two posts.

Anthonyking Naturally, the first guys Haith says he’ll likely look to for points at least early on this season is senior guard Anthony Harris and senior big man Anthony King, the teams top two returning veterans. Harris, who missed the first seven games of last season with an injury, is the most experienced scorer with a 9.5 average a year ago. King, seen as more of a defensive player, averaged 8.8 points a game last year. But Haith said he needs to improve his aggressiveness down low, asking for the ball and trying to score even if the play isn’t designed to go his way. Haith said that’s something King has worked on in the offseason and hopes will translate into games.

Clemente Eventually, though, anyone could emerge as the leading scorer. Raymond Hicks and Jimmy Graham could do it by becoming great garbage collectors under the boards. Denis Clemente, who led the state in scoring twice at Miami Calusa Prep but shot only 33 percent from the field last season, could find his stroke at the point. Then, there’s sophomore Brian Asbury, who has the talent to become the most balanced small forward, and true freshman Lawrence Gilbert, who is loaded with scoring talent. And Hite’s top pick, Siena transfer and guard Jack McClinton, who despite sitting out last season, dominated during practice and earned the nickname of “The Man” from his teammates last season. So the short answer… who knows right now.

2. Which freshman/newcomer will make the biggest immediate impact?

Collins Haith said former Miami High forward Dwayne Collins was the one freshman he thought had come along the most so far and could make an immediate impact. Haith said Collins, a 6-8 big man with a 7-2 wingspan, was pulling rebounds off the rim left and right in offseason conditioning drills and dunking them with ease. The problem is Collins will begin the season as the fourth option in the post behind Graham, Hicks and King and won’t necessarily put up huge enough numbers unless he can prove he can dominate early.

As far as the other freshman are concerned, James Dews and Lawrence Gilbert will likely need a little seasoning before hitting the floor. Dews, a 6-3, 200-pound guard, might make it on the floor a little quicker if Clemente, Harris or McClinton have trouble hitting shots from the outside. Dews averaged 27.7 points a game as a high school senior in Cincinnati and comes in with big reputation after being named a top-100 national prospect.

Gilbert, meanwhile, who fled his native New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and played his senior season in Houston, is probably the most complete small forward the team has. Asbury is seen more as an offensive player and Adrian Thomas’ strength is defense. While Gilbert could eventually surprise, he’s likely to start out behind Asbury who will be given a shot to improve his shooting percentage of 20 percent.

The team’s other big newcomer, 6-11 junior college transfer Fabio Nass, a native Brazilian, could start the season at small forward according to Haith. Nass, a junior, has a nice shooting touch and could start at small forward if Asbury and Thomas aren’t getting the job done.

3. How tough really is the ACC going to be this year?

Real tough. After having only four teams make the big dance last year and none reach the Final Four for only the fifth time since 1981, this year the conference could have as many as eight make it to the dance. North Carolina, led by consensus Preseason Player of the Year Tyler Hansbrough, was tabbed No. 1 in the conference each of the magazines I picked up. A few picked them to beat Florida in the National Title game next year.

After that, Duke, Boston College, Florida State, Georgia Tech and Maryland are expected to qualify with Virginia and Virginia Tech possibly being bubble teams. The only teams that UM ranked ahead of in a few of the preseason rankings were Clemson, Wake Forest and N.C. State, teams that either have new coaches or lost top players to graduation and the NBA Draft.

4. Is UM done with recruiting for the Class of 2007?

Pretty much -- unless someone drops out of a commitment unexpectedly.

Guard Edwin Rios, who was at Hollywood Chaminade last year, has transferred back to Miami High and will play for the team he led to a state title two seasons ago. Rios, once considered one of the nation’s top 10 recruits, has slipped a little with a few shaky AAU seasons but likely will make an impact once he gets to Miami.

UM’s other local college commitment, 6-9 center Freddy Asprilla, is no longer local. He has moved to Wisconsin where he will play high school ball this season. Asprilla, who played for the Miami Tropics this past season, was expected to play for Calusa Prep.

Finally, Julian Gamble, a 6-9, 240-pound power forward from Durham, North Carolina, is also locked in. Gamble averaged 18 points and 12 rebounds last season. Haith did tell us he always leaves one scholarship open – just in case a transfer or late signee wants in.

Well, that’s it for now. As I said, I’ll have more after I see the team practice Saturday and again after media day next Wednesday. Please send me any questions you might have (football or basketball related) and I’ll try to get answers for the next blog.