I just flew back into town from San Juan a few hours ago with a very happy University of Miami men's basketball team, who brought home a rather petite championship trophy from the inaugural O'Reilly Auto Parts Puerto Rico Tip-Off this weekend.
The trophy may not be big, but for this program the tournament title meant a lot -- especially the players who had to endure last year's 12-20 injury-riddled season. After spending five days with them (in the same hotel and the same flight home) I can tell you it meant a lot. In the two years I've been covering this program, I've never seen players happier or more confident. The Canes are 4-0 for the first time since they started the 2001-02 season on fire and finished with a 24-8 record and NCAA tournament berth.
The start made somewhat of an impression on the pollsters. One writer from Arkansas, who votes in the Associated Press poll and was at the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, told me he was going to rank Miami fifth nationally. Not sure if he was being legit or not. But the Canes did appear in the latest Associated Press and ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll under the also receiving votes category.
So, Canes fans, stick out your chest and scream it with me: "We're No. 35!" The AP poll gave UM 27 votes, good for 35th if you count all the teams in front of it. Unbeaten and two-time defending national champion Florida (4-0) took the No. 25 spot (The hated Gators strike again!) UM also got 7 votes in the coach's poll, good for 43rd along with Boston College.
Miami's next game is against Morgan State (2-1) on Saturday at 1 p.m. at the BUC. Morgan State's not a bad team. They nearly upset UConn, falling 69-65 in the season opener. For those of you hardcore hoop fans, they are coached by former California coach Todd Bozeman, who was basically banned by the NCAA for nearly a decade for recruiting violations at Cal. He's been coaching Morgan State, based out of Baltimore, since last season. The program won four games in the three seasons before he got there. They went 13-18 last year. He's added more talent this year. MSU can shoot the three and has two good wing players and a 6-9 center who led the MEAC in rebounding last season. It will not be an easy game for UM.
Speaking of the Canes, I sat next to Dwayne Collins, James Dews and Julian Gamble on the flight home and got to talk to them plenty. Among the interesting topics -- Guillermo Diaz, who left school after his junior season to enter the NBA Draft. Dews asked me if I thought Diaz made the right decision. I told him I thought Diaz should have left a year earlier, before he was injured and when his draft stock was higher. Dews and Collins agreed. Then they added, "he should have come back if he was hurt." I found it interesting not because of the talk about Diaz (who was cut by the Clippers toward the end of the NBA preseason and was told is working on a comeback) but because it shows you that there are bigger aspirations on the minds of the players on this team. At 6-3, Dews could sprout into NBA player, especially if he keeps playing defense the way he has and hitting big three-point shots, ala a Ben Gordon. At 6-9, 245-pounds, Collins to me has the most raw skill and ability on this team and is likely the best future NBA prospect.
I know some of you have raised the question if I think center Anthony King is a potential draft pick. According to NBA Draft Press, King was rated the 31st best power forward prospect in the country last year at 6-9, 230 pounds. This year, he's proven to be a much better offensive player since his return. He's making free throws at an extremely high percentage (81%), he's hitting the mid-to-long range jumper and rebounding on both sides of the court (9.5 avg). He's still playing incredible defense too (14 blocks in 4 games). It's going to be hard for him to earn All-ACC First Teams honors with Tyler Hansborough and several other high profile big men in the conference, but that doesn't mean King might not finish this season as the best big man in the league. And if he is, there is no reason he should get drafted.
As for the team, the draft is the last thing they are thinking about. As I walked off the plane with guard Jack McClinton, we talked about the All-Tournament selection trophy he was carrying and how Anthoiny King got stiffed in the MVP voting. McClinton told me: "I could care less about this. We're winning. That's all that matters." I spoke with McClinton for more than 15 minutes in Puerto Rico about a ton of things. I posted it in the UM audio section. You should check it out -- along with my talk with freshman point guard Eddie Rios.
The Canes by the way were not recognized by many folks at Miami International Airport. They didn't even draw cheers. One security guy at the airport asked me, "Who is that?" I told him, "the UM basketball team, they just won in Puerto Rico." He told me, "I didn't even know they had a basketball team. I thought all they had was football." Made me chuckle. It still shows you how badly this program needs to win more games like it did Sunday night to garner the attention of folks in this town. I told the players as we were walking toward the luggage, "You realize nobody is cheering for you?" McClinton told me, "Hopefully we can change that. We just got to keep winning."
This team will win a lot more this year. Hopefully, it will be enough to get people to notice and help them convince recruits like Kenny Boynton to stay home instead of leaving for Duke.