The University of Miami men's and women's basketball teams accomplished something last year that had never been done before: they each finished with at 20 wins in the same season. With the bulk of those teams back, expectations are high as both believe they should make it to the NCAA Tournament.
Will they get there? We'll find out in March. But here are some news and notes from Wednesday's media day in Coral Gables:
> Men's coach Frank Haith, whose team opens the exhibition season next Wednesday at home against Barry, finished 20-12 and reached the semifinal round of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament before losing to eventual national champion Duke.
"We had our media day in North Carolina last week and somebody asked me if you can have momentum carry over last year. And my answer was yeah -- if you have the bulk of your team back from last season, which we do,'' Haith said.
"I think we got a team good enough to finish in the middle of the pack. Does that mean we'll finish fifth or sixth? I don't know, we could probably second or third. I think we have a team that can finish in the upper half of this league."
> The two things Haith said he challenged talented sophomore Durand Scott to improve after last season was his role as a vocal leader and his three-point shooting (he was only 16 of 58, .276 as a freshman). It appears Scott, who attended Chris Paul's prestigious camp for guards over the summer, has done both.
"I've seen a drastic change in Durand," junior swingman Dequan Jones said. "He's one of those kids where he was naturally born to lead. He has an ambience about him that makes you want to follow him. I think now he's really tapped into who he is and how he's going to lead the team vocally and by example. Guys are ready to rally behind him and win some games. In practice everyday he gets guys going. He's always vocal whether we're running dummy offense or playing five-on-five live. He's always talking, saying screen left or screen right. He gives you that confidence on the court that he's always there."
Haith said Scott has also already shown an improved shooting touch. He just doesn't want him to make the mistake of feeling like he has to prove it during the games, rather flash it. "Durand has to be a well-rounded, all-around player," Haith said. "The strength of his game is getting in the paint. I think it will be even more effective if he can make shots. I don’t want him to have to prove to people he’s a three-point shooter. That’s the worst thing a young player can do when they think they lack in our area and the first opportunity they get they have to prove they’re a three-point shooter. You have to do you. We had a practice the other day and Durand made three or three threes in a row. He’s definitely worked at it. It’s all about working game speed with Durand.
> There were plenty of highlights for the Canes during the summer -- trips to different parts of the world and what not. But the big highlight? When LeBron James and several NBA players (Chris Bosh, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade) came in and spent three days playing pick-up games with the team over the summer.
"They came in here and played ball with us -- it wasn't just breaking a sweat or anything like that," forward Julian Gamble said. "They talked to us, kidded around. It was a great opportunity, once in a lifetime. These are superstar guys that get paid hundreds of millions of dollars do what they do. For them to come in there and act like one of us, showed us how they’re people too. The way they came in here how humble they were, it was really great."
Scott said he was able to steal the ball once from LeBron. Any dunks? "No," Scott said laughing. "I wish."
> Since practice started Oct. 15, Haith said guard Malcolm Grant, a 6-1, 180-pound junior who is expected to join standout sophomore Durand Scott in the starting back court, has stood out the most. "He's playing with such confidence, playing quicker,'' Haith said. "I told him to study a former player I had at Texas, D.J. Augustin. [Grant] reminds me a lot of D.J."
Haith said Grant, who lost about 10 pounds in the offseason, made his biggest strides "in terms of pace, how he can accelerate and his ability to shoot the ball."
"He's playing at a high level right now," Haith said.
> Forward Julian Gamble (6-9, 258) returned to practice Monday after sitting out a month following surgery to repair or a torn meniscus in his left knee. "It's just a process of getting back into shape, just jelling with the guys,'' said Gamble, who says he doesn't feel any discomfort in the knee. "I'm really happy to be back out there when I'm not sucking wind on the sidelines, trying to survive.''
Haith expects Gamble, who started 11 games in a row to close out the 2009 season and averaged 6.3 rebounds over his last seven starts, to be ready by the time the Hurricanes play their first road game at Memphis Nov. 15. The Tigers debuted at No. 19 in the preseason AP poll.
> Junior swingman Dequan Jones has been rather unspectacular most of his career despite coming to UM as one of the most highly touted recruits Haith has brought in. Last year, he averaged 5.7 points, 2.1 rebounds and had just 15 steals and 16 blocks in 20 starts. But his strong showing at the ACC tournament, when he averaged 11.7 points, has Haith optimistic about Jones' future.
Jones said he's continued to work hard in the offseason on his jump shot, putting up 500 to 600 shots a day after practice when he's already tired. Jones said he wouldn't leave the court until he's done making at least 300. "Jump shooting has been a big thing for me in the offseason," Jones said. "Most people come in at different times to shoot. When you shoot after practice, when your body is tired, that's more like a game situation."
> Freshman forward Raphael Akpejiori (6-8, 229), who sustained a stress reaction in his foot when practice first began on Oct. 15, is being closely monitored said Haith. As for his play, Haith said: "He is relentless on the court. I love that about him. Compared to say Dwayne Collins at the same stage, he’s got more skill set than Dwayne does. Dwayne was very raw as a freshman. [Akpejiori] has good low post moves. He has really tremendous instincts around the basket in terms of keeping balls alive. He’s not afraid of contact. He even gave the old [Dikembe] Mutombo move the other day at practice. He has all the things I love in terms of energy and enthusiasm."
> Haith said redshirt freshman forward Donnavan Kirk (6-9, 227) will definitely be in the rotation this season and play quite a bit. "He gives us athleticism in the post,'' Haith said. "He's a pretty good skill [player] too. He can make a shot 17-feet in. I think he'll be a three-point shooter before his career is over. He's a guy that's not allergic to working."
> At 6-10 and athletic 303-pounds, sophomore center Reggie Johnson can be a pretty intimidating presence on the basketball court. But could you picture him wearing shoulder pads, a helmet and standing side by side with 6-8, 355-pound freshman tackle Seantrel Henderson?
Apparently, Hurricanes football coach Randy Shannon already has. Johnson, who held court for about 20 minutes with reporters (telling funny stories about his offseason trip to China and how he tripped and fell during his tour of the Great Wall), said Shannon has joked with him in the past about coming out for football.
"Coach always says, `Hey, big fella, come on out to the football field. You saw Jimmy Graham, right? Look where he is now: Making millions,'" Johnson said. "I'm like, `Yes, sir.'"
Johnson, who impressed at last year's ACC Tournament averaging 13.7 points, eight rebounds, and 1.7 blocks in earning Second Team all-tournament honors, probably won't ever have to do it. His basketball talents are already drawing the attention of NBA scouts. But would he try football if hoops didn't work out? "Hopefully I don't have to; I want to stick with basketball," Johnson said. "[But] If it comes about I think I would. It could be [an option]."
Johnson of course would have to get over one big issue: his fear of Shannon. "I'm afraid of coach Shannon for no reason, I don't know why," Johnson said. "He walks up, comes to my class - and even though he's not checking on me - I straighten up, raise my hand, pay attention. I can't explain it."
> Haith said Dwayne Collins, drafted 60th overall by the Suns last June, is back home in Miami. Collins was playing in the Italian basketball league top level for Pallacanestro Varese. Former Canes Jack McClinton, Rob Hite and Brian Asbury are all playing in Israel. Haith said last he heard Guillermo Diaz was playing in Puerto Rico and Anthony King was in Germany.
> Women's coach Katie Meier, whose team is bringing back its top two scorers in Shenise "Moe Moe" Johnson and Riquna "Bay Bay" Williams from a 22-14 season which ended with a runner-up in the NIT, said the biggest improvement her team has made is in the backcourt.
"The difference between this year and last year will be that when the game is on the line and there is four minutes left in the game, [Johnson and Williams] won't have played 34 minutes already and try to win the game when they're completely exhausted,'' Meier said. "There is a lot on those two kids and in end of the game situations they were pretty much spent. It's my job as a coach to give them the eight minute media rest, plus a couple more minutes in the second half so when its time to bring their A-game in the last two minutes of the game, they can do that."
> Freshman guard Krystal Saunders, a 5-8 standout from South Broward High, is one of the new additions Meier is most excited about. She said Saunders' scoring ability … particularly from three-point range -- should help spread the floor even more for Johnson and Williams to penetrate.
"Her style and our style is a great marriage," Meier said. "She's really showing up in practice."