LITTLE ROCK -- How do you put a chip back on someone's shoulder? How do you put an edge back on a team that hit a wall? University of Miami coach Frank Haith has that task this week in the NCAA Tournament. Haith pulled off one of the best razzle-dazzles in all of college basketball this season, morphing UM from last-place preseason ACC team to NCAA Tournament qualifier for the first time in six seasons. But this task, making Miami a tough team in March, is level two. It's what separates good coaches from great ones.
Make no mistake about it -- this matchup with Saint Mary's (25-6) Friday will not be easy for the Hurricanes. Even if you've never seen the Gaels play or have any idea what the West Coast Conference is, know this: Saint Mary's can ball. Their point guard, Patty Mills, is one of the best players in all of Australia. At 19, he helped "The Boomers" qualify for next year's Olympics. "He compares to Sean Singletary," said UM power forward Jimmy Graham, who watched Mills drop 26 in an Olympic qualifier. "He can finish around the basket and he can shoot. He’s a little smaller than him. He’s not as built as he is. But as far as the quickness and finishing aspect, it’s Sean Singletary. He’s fast. I’m telling you. When I saw him play in August, my man was fast. It’s definitely going to be a challenge for us to keep him in front. We all got to play hell defense tomorrow."
Power forward Diamon Simpson was the Defensive Player of the Year in the WCC. "He’s been great for us this year, especially down the stretch," said St. Mary's guard Todd Golden, the only player on either team with NCAA Tournament experience. "He’s just been unbelievable. He very easily could have been the player in our league. He scored 20 down the stretch in the last couple games. He just blocks everything down low. He’s a great guy to funnel to defensively. He challenges every shot. And he’s just been so consistent and really just carried those last few games."
Center Omar Samhan, a 6-11, 265-pound sophomore, will be the biggest guy Anthony King (6-9, 248) will have had to guard all season, other than few minutes Duke had its 7-footer against King earlier this season. "I can just tell you man it’s going to be a challenge. We’re just going to have play hard and do our best against him. He is a good player and you just got to respect someone that size that finishes around the basket the way he does. It’s very tough to guard a guy in the post that can pass the ball well. There’s not to many guys in the ACC we’ve really gone up against that can pass it like that. Duke's got [Kyle] Singler. That’s something we’re really have to work on. We're going to have to stay down on the ball and really try to make it difficult for them to see their other teammates open."
But Saint Mary's, which can shoot the three well, will not be the only challenge alone. Haith has his own guys he needs to get amped up. He told us earlier this week his team "hit a wall" after rallying from a 2-6 hole in the conference to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. And he needs to put a chip back on their shoulder. But how? We'll find out soon enough.
OVER THE FLU BUG -- FINALLY: Graham told me he is finally over the flu bug, which also hit Jack McClinton and James Dews this week. Graham said he was bed-ridden on Monday and Tuesday. He finally practiced Thursday, but Haith said he looked a little winded. Miami certainly needs its Liger, who provides that emotional lift off the bench.
GAELS DID THEIR HOMEWORK: The one thing I learned about Saint Mary's is these guys know how to scout a team. In my conversations with guards Todd Golden and Tron Smith, I came away feeling like these guys had picked up a manual on the Canes. Golden, a basketball junkie, said he has actually been following the Canes for weeks.
"I watch a lot of college basketball. So, I saw them on ESPN a couple times and I saw them against Virginia Tech in the ACC Tournament. It was interesting we got to picked them since I watched them some. They’re obviously a really good team. They’re really athletic. They got McClinton on the perimeter that can really score. He can shoot the three. He averages like three a game. And just how good Collins could be. When they played against Duke, he had 26 points against them. I think their whole starting five is good. Hurdle is a good point guard. He took the third most shots on the team. Dews is just a real good small forward for them. King is a solid fifth-year center. You got to know your opponent. Never fear, but respect your opponent. It’s what they do if you want to make sure you’re ready to play them."
Smith, a 6-2 senior who will guard McClinton, wasn't far behind. "I watched him play a couple games this year. I watched like 2-3 games earlier in the year. It’s going to be a tough assignment. He’s a real good player. He’s a shooter. My job is really to make everything as tough as possible. Basically I’m just going to try and deny him the ball, take the ball out of his hands. Those type of players you just try to keep the ball out of their hands as much as possible."
I can't necessarily say the Canes sounded as smart about the Gaels. UM players weren't throwing around stats or first names when I asked them to talk about Saint Mary's.
THE BALL IS KEY: In today's paper, I wrote a story about how the use of different balls in college basketball can affect shooters. McClinton made me laugh Thursday when he pointed out how I pointed out his shooting woes. "Manny was reminding me how bad my percentages were, so I had to step it up for him," McClinton told another reporter Thursday. "Manny called me about it and talked about what my percentages were and since then I’ve had to pick it up. I'm just messing."
Seriously speaking, though: "Yeah it does," McClinton said when asked if the ball change at the ACC Tournament affected him. "I don’t like to make excuses, that’s why I never said anything about the ball. But it definitely makes a difference. It’s like going to play on an outdoor court with a rubber ball. You should be. But when lights is on and your sweating. The ball is slipping. There’s nothing you can do about it."
Here's some good news for Canes fans -- McClinton likes the Wilson ball used in the NCAA Tournament. It's the same one, he says, the Hurricanes used in its win at Mississippi State when McClinton rang off 29 points.