March 14, 2005 CORAL GABLES Guillermo Diaz put the Miami basketball team on his shoulders and carried it throughout this ACC season. Now UM is hoping his shoulders are broad enough to make the Hurricanes an NCAA Tournament team in 2006. There is some uncertainty surrounding the athletic young guard. He's fearless and passionate, yet raw when it comes to basketball knowledge. He's committed to making himself a better player, but at this point he lacks the demeanor and leadership skills it takes to make his teammates follow him. Then there's the NBA factor.
UM coach Frank Haith and Diaz had a nearly two-hour chat following Miami's embarrassing regular-season finale loss to Duke on March 3. In that game, Haith sat Diaz for a prolonged period in the first half because his effort and attitude weren't productive to the team. In their heart-to-heart talk, both aired out their concerns, letting each person know what was needed from the other in a conversation Haith labeled ground-breaking.
"Do you know, if you say something to your teammates, it goes a lot further than if I say it?" Haith said he told Diaz. "You have that kind of influence on this team."
That's why it's important that Miami gets Diaz, who averaged 18.5 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists this season, to return for his junior year.
Some close to Diaz have talked to him about declaring for the 2005 NBA draft. The sophomore, whose athleticism and speed resembles a poor man's Allen Iverson, certainly intrigues scouts. However, his game at this point is nowhere near as polished as Iverson's was during his Georgetown days.
Diaz, who was named to the All-ACC second team, freelances too much, failing to play within Miami's offense. He doesn't know how to effectively utilize screens. He pauses too often, letting defenses set up for him. His shot selection is brash at times, and even though he has some point guard skills, his shoot-first mentality no longer makes the players around him better.
"He's a talented prospect," one NBA scout said recently, "but he needs to improve his basketball IQ."
The scout guessed that Diaz potentially would be selected somewhere in the second round by a team that wants to develop him, possibly by sending him overseas for a season or two to refine his game. Meanwhile, Haith believes he's convinced Diaz to let Miami's staff develop him for at least one more season.
"I explained to Guillermo that I want him to be in the NBA, I want him to be rich and famous, just like I did T.J. Ford (at Texas)," said Haith, who served as an assistant at Texas for three seasons. "I would never, ever hold him back if he was ready to make the jump. But he has to trust me that there is so much more he can add to his game, and that will make him that much more valuable. The great thing about Guillermo is that he listens."
Diaz likely will return next season as one of the ACC's marquee players, and with that status Haith is hoping he'll gain the respect he didn't always get from the league's officials this season. Both Duke guard J.J. Redick and Wake Forest guard Chris Paul attempted more than 170 free throws, while Diaz, who routinely attacks the basket and draws contact, attempted 134.
Coker Hopes Spring Holds Answers
In football, a season of disappointment has led to an offseason of uncertainty.
Losing three games for the first time since 1999 has Miami looking to re-emerge as a national title contender. But when coach Larry Coker recently was asked about his program's chances of getting back into the upper echelon, he sounded more curious than confident.
"We have the chance to have a good team. As far as a national championship, I don't know," said Coker, whose team has won one national title and played for another during his four-year tenure. "We'll know more as we get into spring practice, get into the fall. I think the big thing we have to have is, first of all, we're not going to have any excuses. As a team, we have to take one step at a time and see where that takes us."
Step one for the Hurricanes, who had a productive week of spring practice in mid-March, is to find a starting quarterback to replace departed senior Brock Berlin. Both Kyle Wright and Kirby Freeman appear to be qualified candidates, showing a decent knowledge of the offense during week one. Wright, who possesses a cannon for an arm, particularly impressed the coaches, media and fans.
The last time Miami had a quarterback battle, Coker closed practice to take the pressure off. In what turned out to be a controversial decision, the staff ultimately chose Berlin over Derrick Crudup, who outperformed him in the spring scrimmage. This season Coker has opened up UM's 15 spring practices to the public, allowing those who are interested in the battle to witness it first-hand all along.
"We don't have anything to hide," Coker said.
When asked whether he was concerned about on-lookers' opinions, Coker joked that he probably should end the spring by taking a poll to determine his starter.
Quarterback isn't the only position that will be vital to UM's success in 2005. With the exception of cornerback Antrel Rolle, a projected first-round pick in next month's NFL draft, the defense will return virtually intact. However, UM's coaches have made it clear that all starting spots except for that of senior cornerback Kelly Jennings (who has started a team-high 28 games) are up for grabs, considering that numerous returnees didn't meet expectations last season.
UM's coaches backed up their claim by placing strong safety Greg Threat, the team's leading tackler last season, and cornerback Devin Hester, an All-American last season who led the team with four interceptions, on the second team to open spring drills. They were behind safety Brandon Meriweather and cornerback Marcus Maxey.
The offensive line is being re-tooled, and a starting tailback to replace the NFL-bound Frank Gore must be identified. However, two of the frontrunners for the latter spot won't be in the competition this spring.
Rising junior Tyrone Moss, UM's most experienced tailback, is limited to non-contact drills because of offseason shoulder surgery. He played with a slightly fractured collarbone all of last season. Andrew Johnson, the team's fastest tailback, is recovering from an ACL injury he suffered during Peach Bowl preparations. That leaves freshmen Charlie Jones and Derron Thomas battling it out for the top spot entering the fall.
Running backs coach Don Soldinger has stressed to Jones that he needs to improve his speed. Thomas, whose durability issues prompted a redshirt season, was told to get stronger and improve his pass protection and receiving ability. He has responded by adding eight pounds, to 194.