January 29, 2008
CORAL GABLES The moment was a first for Miami basketball coach Frank Haith this season.
After the Hurricanes defeated Clemson on Jan. 27, there were plenty of players Haith could have taken time to praise. There was guard Jack McClinton, who hit three consecutive three-pointers in the late stages. There was forward Dwayne Collins, who scored a team-high 18 points with 12 rebounds. And there was forward Brian Asbury, whose five critical free throws sealed the win.
But Haith decided it was time to talk about the player who had made the greatest strides in recent weeks: point guard Lance Hurdle. Hurdle had put together his second straight solid game, perhaps showing that the Hurricanes no longer have to worry about that position.
Hurdle scored 14 points against the Tigers, and he finally is playing like the player who had everyone so excited in the preseason. As the season has progressed, so has Hurdle.
"I've just had to keep working," Hurdle said. "I've just been talking to coach, and he's helped me with some time. I just needed some time."
Time helped him put together his best stretch of the season. A junior college transfer, Hurdle spent much of the early season adjusting to playing major Division I basketball. It showed, because he had a tendency to rush the offense and struggled with his shooting. He had a break-out game against North Carolina, scoring a season-high 20 points. It was the one positive in a game the Hurricanes lost by 16.
Hurdle followed that with the impressive showing against Clemson. When he left the game, the Hurricanes could not find much rhythm in their offense. His return was part of the reason for the comeback.
"When he went out, we struggled a little bit," Haith said. "I guess you can see his growth as a player."
Hurdle said his turnaround could be credited mostly to his teammates. They have been patient in his development. They knew they were going to be relatively young at the position when the season started.
Hurdle was vying with freshman Eddie Rios for the starting spot in October, and it appeared neither was capable of doing the job. They struggled so much that Haith had to move McClinton from shooting guard to run the offense.
But eventually, Hurdle began picking up the game, and the transition is being made. He clearly has distanced himself from Rios, who has yet to make the adjustment from high school to college.
"We're like a big family," Hurdle said. "When you got trust in your teammates, it makes it a lot easier to play. Those are my brothers."
If Hurdle can continue to improve, it would help a Miami team looking to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001-02. The Hurricanes have the inside presence with center Anthony King, forward Jimmy Graham and Collins. They have shooters in McClinton and James Dews.
With Hurdle's progression, they may have the point guard they need, too.
MCCLINTON DRAWING DEFENDERS
Last year, when McClinton arrived in the ACC, he was an unknown player. After his third-team all-conference effort in 2006-07, teams are more than aware of him. The distinction has led to facing tougher defenses geared toward stopping him.
McClinton has found it more difficult to get shots this season, with teams often putting a taller player on him to limit his shooting. Georgia Tech went as far as defending the 6-1 McClinton with 6-8 forward Zack Peacock.
The matchups have caused some difficulty. Although McClinton still leads the team with 16.1 points per game, his shooting percentage has dipped recently. In five ACC games, he is shooting just 24-of-72 (33.3 percent). He suffered through a 6-for-26 performance in a loss to Boston College.
"It's something I have to get used to," McClinton said. "Teams are doing different things to try to stop me. I just have to be ready for it."
HAITH EXCITED ABOUT SIGNEE
Although the Hurricanes are enjoying their most success in recent years, it's never too early to begin looking to next season.
Haith has been raving about recruit DeQuan Jones since he signed his national letter of intent. Haith recently called Jones, a 6-6 swingman from Wheeler High in Marietta, Ga., the best player he's landed during his four-year tenure in Coral Gables.
Jones should be a welcomed addition next season, as he is expected to give the Hurricanes more size at the wing guard position. McClinton and Dews make up one of the smallest backcourts in the league, and they are asked to face taller players on a regular basis.
Jones will bring athleticism to the backcourt, something Miami hasn't had since Guillermo Diaz and Robert Hite left two years ago. Jones is considered one of the nation's most athletic players and is known for his crowd-pleasing dunks.
SHANNON HANDS OVER REINS
Miami football coach Randy Shannon ended all of the speculation that he was going to have control over the defense by hiring Bill Young as his defensive coordinator this month.
Young spent the last six seasons building the Kansas Jayhawks into one of the top defensive teams in the nation.
Many thought Shannon would hire a less experienced person for the job, meaning that he could have more say in the defensive schemes. Shannon always has been a defensive-minded coach, after leading the Hurricanes' defense for six seasons before being named the head coach last year.
But choosing Young, who has 39 years of coaching experience, should leave Shannon to contend only with the responsibilities of being a head coach. Young has coached at Ohio State and Southern Cal and had a stint in the NFL.
The one question about Young's hire was his age. At 61, there were some concerns if he could relate to the players. But most of Young's former players said that should not be a concern.