OK, I'm finally back from my trips to the ACC Tournament in Tampa and to the NCAA opening round game in Dayton and have plenty of time now to devote to this blog and to sitting on my couch and watching this tournament.
First off, before we move onto this year's NCAA tournament, I want to tidy up on the Canes. I've got to say I was thoroughly impressed with the effort the University of Miami put forward last week at the ACC tournament. The fact they were able to beat an athletic team like Maryland and take Boston College to overtime is a testament how good this team will be better next year when it finally has all of its parts in place. Honestly, it was the first time in a long time the team had more than one healthy, real post option. And it made all the difference.
Before I left Tampa, I got a chance to talk to coach Frank Haith for about an hour about the future of this team, how the scholarship situation may shake out, how he sees the development of his players progressing and where Miami could figure in next season in the ACC.
AN IMPOSING FRONTCOURT: Before we break down the scholarship situation, I've got to talk about Jimmy Graham, because I don't think there was a player who wowed me more than he did. I don't think there is any question now Graham is as talented a player as Haith has been saying all along. What he did in two games at the ACC tournament, rebounding, putback dunks and blocks should get Canes fans excited for next season. Graham provided UM with some much needed interior beef it lacked all season. Jimmy has always had the body to be a big physical presence. As Haith has said all season, what holds Jimmy back is his mental toughness. That's why when Jimmy picked up a technical for hanging on the rim following a dunk, Haith laid off him. "Had I gotten into him for it, we would have lost him for the rest of the game," Haith told me. Graham plays emotionally. And when he is excited and into the game, at times he can be unstoppable. Even though his offensive game has limitations, he's good enough at the college level to be a force.
That being said, Graham may not even be a starter on this team next season. Haith has confidence Anthony King will be back next season and playing center. We'll find out on April 16th if King could be granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA when the organization votes on extending its redshirt grace period from 6 games to 8. At that point, UM would apply for the medical redshirt. If King comes back, Haith said freshman Dwayne Collins will likely move over to power forward -- the spot he should really be playing -- and Graham will become the first option off the bench. That's 6-9 King, 6-8 Collins and 6-8 Graham. The rest of the post options will feature 6-7 Ray Hicks, 6-11 Fabio Nass and matching 6-10 incoming freshmen Julian Gamble and Freddy Asprilla. On paper at least, I'm not sure UM has ever had a team going to a season with that much size.
Gamble, according to assistant Butch Estes, is more of a power forward. Asprilla, who is still iffy (his high school closed down in January), is more of a pure center. Estes said Asprilla is an exceptional back-to-the-basket player, who can pass and score in the paint. Haith told me Hicks, who was suspended twice during the season, will be welcomed back if he cleans up his act and "becomes honest with me." I think Hicks will be back. Haith said Nass, who tore up his knee in January, should be back for fall ball.
Anyway, if you do the math, that's seven scholarship players who play the post. Men's college basketball teams are allowed to have up to 13. Keep that in mind as I continue.
ASBURY HAS SHOWN IMPROVEMENT: The small forward spot, currently occupied by sophomore Brian Asbury, will finally have some depth to it next year when Haith said Adrian Thomas, whom Haith has always referred to as his best defender, returns from his sports hernia injury. The other option would be freshman Lawrence Gilbert, who played sparingly this season, and could end up transferring because he could be the odd man out. Much like Asbury did a year ago, Gilbert had problems finding his spots on the court and often looked lost. With Asbury only being a junior next season and Thomas a redshirt sophomore, Gilbert may not want to stick around. Asbury made drastic improvement this season, finishing second on the team in scoring (12.2 ppg) and leading the team in rebounds (6.0) after King went down. But the key to Asbury is getting him to be more consistent when Miami is on the road. He showed signs of that late as the season progressed. Ultimately, though, I don't think Haith really needs Asbury to be his No. 2 scoring option and thinks Asbury will be able to flourish when Miami develops a real scoring threat in the post with King and Collins.
A NEW BACKCOURT: The same could be said for guard Jack McClinton. Captain Jack really improved defensively as the season progresed and became much more than just a three-point shooter and scorer. The third-team All-ACC selection finished the season as the team's leading scorer (16.0 ppg) and ranked No. 1 in the ACC in the three-point field goal percentage and free throw percentage. But what he did in Miami's final few games -- playing improved defense and running the point with success -- is a tremendously positive sign for the Hurricanes moving forward. McClinton struggled dribbling the ball at times this season, losing balls off his foot and creating turnovers. In the ACC tournament, he penetrated and created easy dunks for his teammates. With Anthony Harris leaving and Denis Clemente's future at UM in doubt (I'll get to it soon), McClinton could end up being the starting point guard next season. That's a spot the 6-1 sophomore will likely end up having to play anyway if he has any hopes of making the NBA. Haith said McClinton can do it with some coaching and practice this offseason.
If McClinton does make the move to the point, it likely will be because Denis Clemente is not on the team. And that decision may not even be up to Haith anymore. Haith didn't want to speculate, but he didn't sound optimistic to me about getting Clemente back. That's a shame because Clemente was really starting to improve toward the end of the season. He was stroking the three and averaging close to 13 points during the final stretch of the year. If Clemente leaves, James Dews would likely move into the starting shooting guard spot. Dews, who is 6-3, is a much option there because of his added size and athleticism. Haith has said Dews is the best defender he has at the guard spot. Backing those guys up would be incoming freshman Edwin Rios, a 6-foot guard from Miami High, who is a scoring point guard and Lance Hurdle, one of the top JUCO players in California. Hurdle is only a commitment right now. But the 6-2, 180-pound combo guard would most certainly have a spot if Miami loses a scholarship player. Hurdle is a player likened to Rob Hite with a vertical leap of 42-inches.
OK, so now that I'm done breaking down the spots. Let's figure out who may or may not be here. If you do the math, there are 15 names that could potentially be on this team next season.
Post (7): King, Collins, Graham, Hicks, Asprilla, Gamble, Nass.
Swing (3): Asbury, Thomas, Gilbert.
Backcourt (5): McClinton, Clemente, Dews, Rios and Hurdle.
In the end, expect two of these six to not be on the team: King, Hicks, Asprilla, Gilbert, Clemente or Hurdle. Obviously, if that situation plays out for the worst, the Canes will lose King and Clemente, two potential starters for next season. But even in that worse case scenario, Miami would still have the team it finished the ACC tournament with, plus the addition of the incoming freshmen or JUCO recruit. And the team that finished play in Tampa was much better than the one we all saw this season. So, either way, there is no way to go but up for this team. And while UM may not be around this March, there is no doubt in my mind UM will be a postseason team next year -- either in the NIT or in the Big Dance.