It was no secret heading into the University of Miami's basketball season that the biggest question mark was at point guard. Coach Frank Haith told reporters early on, he hoped his most hyped and prized recruit, Eddie Rios, would eventually sprout into the leader of that role by season's end.
"I think Eddie is going to have a terrific career, but I don't want him to feel he has to wear a cape," Haith told me back in May. "I think at least for the early part of the season, we can spread the work around between Eddie, Jack [McClinton] and Lance [Hurdle]. But eventually, Eddie is going to be the man. That's what he's coming here for."
Lately, Rios has begun to show flashes of the skills that once made recruiting analysts hype him as one of the top five '07 players in the country as a sophomore. Last week at Virginia Tech, he scored a career-high 14 points, made three three-pointers, picked up two steals and then hit a pair of clutch free throws down the stretch to ice UM's first ACC road win in 11 tries. I wasn't at Virginia Tech. I didn't watch the game. But from what I heard from his teammates including Ray Hicks, it was the type of effort they used to see from Rios when they would go watch him play at Miami High.
So, could this be the start of what Canes fans have hoped for? Or was it just one good game? And what has taken Rios so long to get going? I went down to UM Wednesday and spoke with Rios for 20 minutes to try to see where his head is at. Here are some of things he had to say.
Q: Between you, Lance and Jack, you are probably the most natural of the three guys sharing the point guard duties. Coach has said it himself. Are you hoping maybe what you did against Virginia Tech will start making you feel like the old Eddie Rios?
A: I hope so. I hope I can continue playing the way I've been playing. I think I can help the team by just hitting shots when I'm open, finding my teammates and making everybody else better. And also d-ing up [playing defense], doing anything to win, being a scrappy player. So, I guess I can contribute like that. Hopefully, I'll go out and have a good outing like I did against Virginia Tech and do it again Sunday. But I just got to keep working. I can't settle on one game. I've got to keep working my shot and my handle and help the team win.
Q: I know you came in with a lot of expectations. You predicted you were going to take UM to the NCAA tournament as a freshman when you signed. You still believe it? And have you had the type of impact you were hoping for?
A: I still believe in that. I wanted to make a bigger impact than I have this year. I think I came in kind of, I don't know, I didn't really adjust so early. It was kind of a surprise to me. I don't think I've done so good so far. But hopefully, there's a lot of games left, hopefully I can go out with a bang and we'll just keep winning. This year has been a learning experience for me.
Q: People had these big expectations of you because of all you accomplished in high school and at the AAU level. How did you envision yourself?
A: I just envisioned myself like if this was going to be high school in the sense that it was going to be easy to drive, easy to hit shots. It was a different atmosphere coming in. The intensity went up. The speed changed. I envisioned it like high school when I first came out. And then when we started playing in the preseason I said 'OK, I'm in college now.' It just took me awhile to adjust. Early on the season, I didn't have my legs with me in the sense that I'm used to starting. And when I start my legs warm up quick and my legs won't be burning. I was slow and stiff. But all that now is going away now. When I get in there, I'm ready to go. I don't get tired. My speed is back. My legs don't burn as much. It's a big change.
Q: What's been the biggest adjustment from high school to college?
A: A: Knowing when to shoot when you're open. There's times when you think you're open or when you are open and you think the guy is going to come contest your shot -- you just got to let it go. I used to think a guy was going to block it because they recover so fast. Also the speed, for everybody. The speed is a little quicker. You have quick twitch muscles. They react faster to your passes. And also the defense, staying in front of your defender, staying in front of him.
Q: You are a guy who has always had the ball in your hand. You've been the starter, the star. Has it been tough sitting on the bench?
A: It's been tough, but I just got to wait for my name to be called. I just got to go in there when they do call it and try to help my team out the way I can. If I don't play that much I can't get mad at the coach or my teammates, I just got to keep practicing and wait for a new opportunity.
Q: I know your parents have a lot of pride and they had their own expectations. I know at one point they thought you could spend one year in college and go to the NBA. What have your parents said through this season. Has it been an eye-opening experience for them too?
A: A little bit. They just tell me to keep working hard each game and don't worry about it, about playing. You'll get your chance soon and help the team win. They tell me if I'm not playing to cheer for the team, practice hard against them and make them better. They haven't given any problems, I don't think.
Q: What did they say after the Virginia Tech game?
A: They were happy after that game. They told me it's only one game and there are still more games to be played. Anybody can have one good game. I hit my shots. I was supposed to do that. They said keep working and do it on Sunday and the rest of the season.
Q: Was there a point this season when you started to feel comfortable again?
A: I think the Duke game helped me a lot. We played a very good team. The atmosphere was intense. When I went there, I felt nervous in the beginning when I got in there. But then I started to blow by guys. To be honest, I felt like I was back in high school. I felt real loose. I felt like I had freedom. I made a mistake and coach left me in there. The team was feeding off my energy. Jimmy had a couple dunks. Ray had a couple dunks. I don't know, I guess it helped my confidence a lot playing against a team like that. I grew up seeing them on TV all the time. To go up there and did what I did, I was like OK, I feel good now. It kind of helped me out and I just kept building.
Q: You mentioned having freedom and not being scared of making a mistake. Have you felt that early on?
A: A couple times. But I think that happens to everybody. It's not being scared. You know if you make a mistake, they're going to take you out and it starts messing with you. You got to deal with it and take care of the ball and do what I got to do.
Q: Who have you spent most of your time talking to during this adjustment period?
A: I'm very to myself. I don't spend a lot of time talking to my parents about anything. The coaches? I have a good relationship with everybody. But I'm one of those guys that keeps things to myself. I go to the court and take out all my anger there. Shoot, dribbling. I really don't know how to answer that question.
Q: What about Dwayne Collins? You've known him for a long time. You guys talk?
A: It's different with Dwayne. He's a big guy, so he can't really relate to me and the fact I'm a point guard. It's different. Jack every now and then throws in a couple words of encouragement. Lance talks to me. But I really like to keep things to myself. I think its just the way I was brought up. I was always alone and stuff. I always had my dad and stuff. But I haven't been talking to him that much because he's been busy with work and stuff. I really haven't dealt with things like this. I don't know how to handle it, so I just keep it to myself. I just keep practicing.
Q: Is it because you are shy?
A: (Laughter) I think its time management. I'm kind of shy. It's things where I know what I have to do. I just want to do it on my own. For example, I'll make a mistake and they'll say come by and we'll have film. To be honest, every game I play I have a video in my head of all the mistakes I make. I just know I can do things. I just want to solve them on my own. It's been a learning experience. The first half I wasn't playing that well. I was having trouble with my shot. I was shooting low percentages. All of a sudden, we go to ACC play and my minutes get cut in half -- probably more. But now, I'm getting minutes back. I guess it just comes down to playing hard, relaxing and concerting myself.
Q: Have you been playing differently because you were coming off the bench?
A: I was basically going in playing bench minutes, being conservative, taking care of the ball. But what I've learned is I got to go in there produce, making plays, taking balls to the basket and drawing fouls. I kind of picked it up by myself as the season progressed. [The Virginia Tech game] was a booster for me. I feel real confident.
Q: I know you take a lot of pride in what you do, your stats, the way you are playing. Did you look at your stats this year and say I can believe these are my stats?
A: I was watching film with coach I think after the Winthrop game and he brought up the stats and he was saying everybody's stat line. And he brought mine up and when I heard mine I was like 'Dang, mine are that bad?' It was just motivation to get back in the gym. I've been spending a lot of time doing that. I know because I hit a couple shots they're probably going to guard me a little different now.
Q: I know you've been trying to deal with your struggles on your own. What have you done to maybe draw some confidence? Do you watch film of yourself from your high school days?
A: I did it before the Duke game. Me and Lance, he was in the shower. I was there on the computer I was listening to my music and stuff. I was like 'Dang why I am playing like this? I went on YouTube and put on some videos there -- AAU videos -- and I was like why can't I play like this all the time. I just kind of put that in my mind. I go out there and I feel confidence and I start making plays. Whenever I feel kind of down, I go there and find them... Basically, I have no idea why I've been holding back basically the whole season. I didn't think college was going to be so hard. I wasn't really working that hard and taking it easy and once I saw the competition level I was like man it's time to get serious, buckle down. Especially once we got into ACC. I was like its time to buckle down and work hard and see what I can do. I was taking things for granted. I mean, I would stay after practice and come in before and do extra shooting, but there was no intensity behind it. I was just doing it because I had to. Now, I'm back, I have that energy back. I'm hyped. I want to keep playing. I have a lot of energy now.
Q: Coach said you've spent a lot time working on your dribble a lot. Why?
A: I've been working on my handles. I haven't been taking the ball to class or anything (laughter). After practice I stay with [trainer] Wes Brown after practice for about an hour and just work with him. He'll pull stuff down off the internet and two ball stuff and three-ball. And I'll get my shots up. When I work on my dribble I feel like I can get anywhere I want on the floor. I just feel comfortable when I play.
Q: Part of playing point guard is having a good feel for your teammates. You feel like you got that?
A: I've got a good feel for the team. I know what guys can do and what's their limit. I just think the whole team, it's about being there, making plays, hitting my shot. I got to keep building on that. You got to know what players to give it to at what time. Like, you can't give it to Dwayne when he's trailing. There are certain things I pick up. Me and Jimmy joke around a lot. We have a good sense for each other because in practice since we're always on the same team. I just have to remember to make the easy play. If I make a mistake, don't worry about it and go back and play defense.
AS FOR HAITH... This is what he said Friday he wants to see Rios work on: "The toughest adjustment for him is learning how hard you got to play on the defensive end and offensive end, taking care of the basketball. That position is the hardest to learn because you got to know not only what you got to do but what other people got to do. The speed of the game. Not messing with the ball when people are into you. Being able to go by people. I think that as point guard, you have to have pace of the game. So, you can't let people speed you up. That's strength. You can see people when Eddie would get in the game, they would go after him. Speed him up and try to get after him. Once your confident in your ball-handling skills, you control how fast you go. I think that's been the key for Eddie. And Eddie can score. We need him when he has opportunities to score, we want him to score too."
CALLING OUT MR. ROSS: University of Miami athletes usually have the distinct pleasure of getting to meet plenty of superstars in South Florida. Earlier this month, recent UM football signee Vaughn Telemaque bragged to me how he got to hang out with Edgerrin James and a few rappers who are James' friends during his visit to campus. The basketball team, meanwhile, is apparently very interested in meeting their favorite rapper, Carol City's own Rick Ross.
After my interview with Rios Wednesday, I got approached by senior Ray Hicks who wanted to make a point in requesting the Miami-based rapper to come watch him and his teammates play. Hicks said he and the team listen to Ross's songs -- usually Boss -- before the team heads out to the court for games. In fact, Hicks likes the song Boss so much, he's tattooed it across his back.
"For us on the team, Rick Ross gets us ready to play. He gets us in the game mode. He's one of my favorite rappers to hear -- me and Brian [Asbury]. We just want to see Rick Ross at the game. If we could have a special request, we'd love for him to perform a song at halftime -- Push It To The Limit. If he came to a game, he could do it halftime and give the crowd what they came to see.
"There's a song called Boss. That song does it for me. He just keeps saying he's the biggest Boss people seen thus far. He's the biggest boss around. I just like listening to him before the game. So, Mr. William Roberts, I'm leaving you a ticket before the game. Brian is a big-time co-signer. He's got my back on this. Me and AB and Eddie Rios, I know they got my back on this. 110 percent. Seeing Rick Ross at a game will get us ready before the game. We have one big sound player that plays the songs and we try to listen to to get us all on one beat. We all agree on Rick Ross."