Frank Haith joked last week about having his son, Corey, skip his high school years to provide immediate help for the Hurricanes' injury-plagued basketball team. Truth is, the U needs help bad -- wherever it can find it -- and Haith knows it. It's just not going to happen this season, beyond what walk-on Keaton Copeland is already delivering.
Tonight, when the Hurricanes visit ACC-leading Boston College (12-4, 4-0), they'll be severly outsized. The Eagles start 6-7 Jared Dudley at small forward and have a pair of 6-10 players in the paint in John Oates and Sean Williams.
Miami has 6-8 freshman Dwayne Collins, 6-5 walk-on Keaton Copeland, 6-7 struggling Ray Hicks, 6-11 too thin Fabio Nass and 6-7 freshman Lawrence Gilbert. And the truth is the first three are probably the only one fit and ready to battle inside on a nightly basis. "It is what it is," Haith has said at least three times in the past week.
What The U is now is a team that simply has run out of enough horses to compete on a nightly basis in the ACC. So, whose fault is that? A close friend of mine and die-hard Canes fan called me yesterday before I boarded my flight to Boston to tackle the issue on the minds of many Canes fans: Should the injuries to the basketball team give Haith a free pass for what likely will be a bad season?
My friend doesn't think so. He says Haith, now in his third season at The U, has been given plenty of time to make this team better and points to the fact the team has yet to recruit a McDonald's All-American and to the lack of growth at least a few of the players Haith has recruited (Jimmy Graham, Ray Hicks) have shown. He says the losses UM had early in the season to Cleveland State, Buffalo and Northwestern -- before center Anthony King went down with a season-ending wrist injury -- prove why he says Haith isn't a great coach.
To me, some of the points are valid. But my friend's perspective is more of a look from the glass half-empty point of view, a popular one unfortunately for most fans in South Florida. Truth is, I think many fans have forgotten where most experts had this team before the season -- no higher than 10th in the conference after losing two pro players in Guillermo Diaz and Rob Hite. Throw in the fact King and point guard Anthony Harris were the only two players with significant minutes on their resume coming in and it should bring back the memories of how this season was supposed to be a learning experience for the rest of the squad while King and Harris carried the load. Instead, it's been learn on the go for guys that quite frankly weren't ready.
Yes, Graham and Hicks haven't taken the next step yet. Haith has said it himself. But Brian Asbury, Denis Clemente and Collins have improved substantially. Collins may be the class of the latest crop of freshman, but guard James Dews and Lawrence Gilbert have shown flashes of a promising future.
One example of growth: Joe Zagacki, the radio voice of the Hurricanes, was on the same flight with me to Boston. He's been with the team a long time and as I've made my way through my first season with the Canes, we've shared thoughts and stories at times. He told me a great one about Asbury yesterday about how on Miami's trip to Duke last year, Asbury was so intimidated by the Cameron Crazies, he refused to participate in shootaround when they waved their hands at him in a makebelieve way to hex him. "How far has he come along?," Zagacki pointed out.
On paper, it's easy to understand why UM fans are frustrated. The results of Miami's 9-9 season simply don't add up. Miami has beaten teams it probably shouldn't have and certainly lost to others it shouldn't have. Here's a stat that breathes that sentiment: Of the 18 teams Miami has player thus far, the Hurricanes are 3-1 against their top four RPI opponents (with wins at 25-Maryland, vs. 39-Georgia Tech, and at 73-UMass and the loss vs. 9-Duke). Yet three unexplainable losses have come to low RIP-ranked Buffalo (194), Cleveland State (265) and Binghamton (286). When you take a step back and see how young this team is, its easy to see why the season has been so up and down.
Honestly, I don't expect a lot from this year's team the rest of this season -- especially with it being so limited due to the injuries in the frontcourt and Jack McClinton struggling. But don't be surprised if somewhere down the line, another night like Maryland happens. The talent is there. Like Haith says, this team is what it is. And right now, it's a team riddled with injuries, with very little size or talent in the frontcourt and young talented players learning on the go.
Assuming Asbury, Collins and Clemente continue to improve, Graham and Adrian Thomas come back healthy and the 2007 additions (Freddy Asprilla, Edwin Rios and Julian Gamble) turn out to be as good as this year's freshman class has, then I think Miami has a serious shot at contending for the NCAA tournament again next season. Haith has told me he'd be disappointed if it wasn't.
While the team should take a step forward next season, I hope the rest of the basketball program does too. Last week, when I boarded my plane home from Baltimore, much to my surprise I was joined in line for my Southwest Airlines flight by the team. Sad, but true, UM rarely charters flights for basketball. When I got the plane, Nass and the rest of UM's giants had their legs crushed up against the back seat of other passengers.
So, I asked Anthony Harris when the last time was UM chartered a flight for a game. "Last year's NIT," Harris said. "It's just something you got to get used to." It's something not many teams in the ACC have to, though. In talking with several people this week around the ACC, I learned Miami is one of the few teams that does not charter flights for road games. Do you have any idea what kind of obstacles that must cause Haith when he is trying to wrestle a recruit away from Wake Forest or N.C. State? Think Skip Prosser or Sidney Lowe won't play that 'Hey why go to Miami where you got to fly on Southwest' card?"
But it's more than travel with the Hurricanes. It's the atmosphere around the BankUnited Center that needs to change, too. Sunday's home game versus Duke was not sold-out and Zagacki pointed out to me that more than 15 Duke fans were somehow able to buy tickets behind the Hurricanes bench. "Nowhere else in the ACC does that happen," Zagacki told me. There was of course, some reason. UM decided to package the Duke remaining tickets with two other games for $81. That's a bit pricy for a place like South Florida where it's cool to go to events and not just go to see your favorite team play.
But in all honesty, I can't put the blame all on UM fans. The students are part of the problem too. Miami's student section was finally filled for the first time all season Sunday. It was filled to capacity (1,000) an hour before tip-off. But as Duke pulled away in its 85-63 victory, it was half empty by the middle of the second half. UM senior Paul Burkhart, who wears an orange 'fro to every game, is one of the die-hards who passed out thousands of flyers before the game for fans to wear orange. He was one of the few still standing and cheering at the end.
Last week at Maryland, more than 17,000 strong were in the stands -- dressed all in red -- to see their beloved Terrapins play on a Wednesday night at 9 p.m. no less. The entire bottom bowl of the arena was filled with students, excited about basketball. As Miami players and coaches were introduced, they pulled out newspapers to cover their faces. And after each player and coach was introduced, the entire arena yelled out: "SUCKS!" It was funny. It was fun if you were a Maryland fan.
Miami's student section finally got creative Sunday for Duke, turning their backs along with the school band and flashing a U with their hands toward the sky as Blue Devils players were introduced. Unfortunately, the rest of the crowd had no idea what was going on. If Miami wants to compete on and off the court in the ACC one day with the Marylands, Dukes and North Carolinas of the world, it's going to need to step up its game. Chartered flights and packed arenas are only the beginning.
KING'S REDSHIRT CHANCES: For those of you wondering about Anthony King's chances of returning next season, here's an update: Don't expect it to happen. King played in eight games -- two more than the maximum (20 percent) allowed to receive a medical redshirt. Haith has said there is a movement to change the NCAA rule to 8 games, but from what I hear it's a longshot. And you've got to feel bad for the kid. Anthony has always been a nice person to talk to and player who gives a lot of effort. Giving him his senior season is really the only fair thing the NCAA can do.