By Omar Kelly
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
November 17, 2003 MIAMI In one season, the Miami basketball program went from an up-and-comer to a bottom-feeder in the Big East. After winning a school-record 24 games in 2002 and earning a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Hurricanes barely made it to last year's Big East Tournament. If that wasn't disappointing enough, UM suffered an embarrassing 67-52 loss to Seton Hall in the first round of the tournament, to conclude the season with an 11-17 record. That represented the team's first losing campaign since 1993-94.
I've never played on a losing team, and I didn't think it was going to happen to me in college, senior forward Darius Rice said. And what made it so bad is that we've got talent.
Rice, who flirted with the idea of declaring himself eligible for the NBA draft in the spring, stayed at Miami for his final season in part because he didn't want to end his college career as a loser. This year Rice, who averaged a career-high 18.7 points and 5.8 rebounds in 2002-03, is out to prove he can put his team on his shoulders and carry it to postseason play.
Rice's decision allowed the Hurricanes to retain one of the top shooters in college basketball. After connecting on 51 of 106 three-point attempts last season, Rice could wind up boosting his pro stock by working to improve his areas of weakness.
For Darius to come back showed the stability of the program, said Miami coach Perry Clark, in his fourth year with the Hurricanes after 11 seasons at Tulane and six as an assistant at Georgia Tech. I think there are things he needs to work on. I think everyone said he needed to work on this and work on that. The fact of the matter is, there were some high school players (in the draft) who needed to work on some stuff, too. Darius showed a lot of maturity with his decision to stay and improve.
A 6-10, 222-pounder who always has been comfortable on the perimeter, Rice is expected to see significantly more time this season at power forward. There, he's going to focus on improving his strength, inside play and overall toughness. He hit the weights during the offseason, putting on 10 more pounds of muscle, and held his own during summer workouts with NBA players such as Jermaine O'Neal and Rasheed Wallace, star forwards with similarly lean body types.
Rice isn't too thrilled about playing against more physical forwards, but he trusts his coaches' judgment enough to be willing to expand his comfort zone as a spot-up shooter in an attempt to become a better overall player.
Coach thinks I had my best games at (power forward) last year, said Rice, who also toughened up his clean-cut image by filling his arms with tattoos. He thinks it caused more mismatches, because most forwards can't keep up with me and can't guard me if I do go to the perimeter.
Clark can't afford to make mistakes in judgment this season, because Miami's success in 2003-04 is pivotal to his job security.
Hired to replace Leonard Hamilton in 2000 after Hamilton led UM to three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, Clark received a great deal of criticism last season for his game management, ability to develop talent and marginal recruiting success with the Hurricanes. Many of his critics feel his shortcomings in those areas hindered the team's success in 2002-03, despite the presence of two star players in forward James Jones (a second-round NBA pick) and Rice.
In Clark's defense, he did release shooting guard Marcus Barnes before the season because of disciplinary reasons. Barnes would have been a starter and likely one of the team's leading scorers, but Clark wants to run a clean ship. UM also lost junior forward Will Frisby before the season. Clark said Frisby was slated to be a starter based on his offseason improvement, but a slow-healing broken foot botched those plans. Frisby was redshirted and Clark was forced to give four freshmen point guard Armando Surratt, shooting guards Robert Hite and Eric Wilkins and center Gary Hamilton more minutes than they were ready to handle.
Nobody has a higher standard for Perry Clark than Perry Clark, and that's the way it's always been. But life is a motion picture, not a snapshot, said Clark, who is confident the Hurricanes will rebound in 2003-04, considering he's amassed just four losing seasons in his 14 years as a Division I head coach. I think it's very important that we come back strong and we're back on an NCAA track. That's what's important for the program and what's important to me.
Clark is hoping that the experience Surratt, Hite, Wilkins and Hamilton got last season, and the lessons learned from their struggles, will add up to significant improvements. All four sophomores likely will have starting roles, albeit side dishes of sorts for Rice, who often struggles when teams are able to double-team him.
I think our kids have really worked extremely hard in the offseason to get themselves physically stronger. I think our sophomores have worked on their individual skills and have really developed, Clark said. As they play, hopefully you'll see the mental improvement they've made.
But each of those sophomores has his own hurdles to overcome in order for this team, which will play an up-tempo, running style, to win on a consistent basis.
Surratt, who averaged 6.5 points and 3.3 assists per game, is struggling with his on-court decision-making. Wilkins, who contributed 4.4 points and two rebounds, lacks an outside shot. Hamilton, a 6-9, 245-pound post player who was effective on the boards, pulling down five rebounds a game, has to improve his conditioning.
Hite, an athletic guard who averaged 7.3 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.3 assists, needs to become more consistent. After struggling with his confidence last season, he'll be called upon to take some of the scoring pressure off Rice, and his ability to handle that role will be pivotal to Miami's success.
I started off pretty good, but I had a little slump mentally. I got back into it toward the end of the season, and I think I did OK overall for a freshman, but I could have done a lot better, said Hite, Clark's top-rated recruit at UM. Coach is trying to get me to the stage where I can step up and make big shots, helping the team win some games.
The return of Frisby, a 6-8 forward who is Miami's most athletic player, also should help UM's resurgence. His return to the lineup is crucial because of Rice's move to power forward.
Miami's complementary players must improve to a point where they can take some pressure off Rice on a consistent basis. That, in turn, would help prevent this season from becoming a pressure-cooker for Clark.