January 15, 2008
CORAL GABLES All season long, Miami basketball coach Frank Haith has tried to ignore the critics.
When the Hurricanes won 12 of their first 13 games, many across the country felt it was because of a soft non-conference schedule. UM played the likes of Stetson, North Florida, North Carolina A&T and Morgan State, piling up the wins.
So when the Hurricanes opened ACC play with an impressive 78-68 win against Georgia Tech, Haith was given the opportunity to speak on the doubters. And he continued to do what he has done all season: ignore them.
"I don't think that's for us to figure out," Haith said. "Our job is just to continue to play. We're not into trying to figure out anything other than (the next game)."
It may be boring. It may be coach-speak. But it is the attitude the Hurricanes have taken as they attempt to rise into the upper half of the ACC. They showed they are indeed a team to at least consider with their performance against the Yellow Jackets.
After playing mostly cupcakes to start the season, the Hurricanes were a little shell-shocked in their first league game. Tech stormed to an early 10-point lead and was ready to run away with it. Then Haith simply called a timeout and allowed his team to re-group.
Reserve forward Jimmy Graham scored six consecutive points, and the Hurricanes were able to grab the lead at halftime. In the second half, guard James Dews picked up the scoring while leading scorer Jack McClinton struggled. Dews scored 16 of his game-high 20 points in the second half, and Miami wrapped up the victory in front of its biggest home crowd of the season.
"We missed some shots we normally make," Haith said. "We were 2-for-19 from three-point range and win the ballgame. So obviously we're very pleased with us finding another way to win the game. We won the game on our energy, our twos, and we made free throws."
No player has shown more energy than Graham. He's made the most of what could be a difficult situation. Haith decided to bench Graham two games ago in favor of sophomore Dwayne Collins. The reasoning was so Graham could play more minutes and avoid early foul trouble, which has plagued him throughout his career.
The goal is for the energetic Graham to provide a spark off the bench when the team is struggling. He did exactly that against Tech, with his rebounds, put-back baskets and defense.
"I think Jimmy's energy got us going," Haith said. "When he came in the game, he made some tough plays. He got offensive rebounds. He took a charge."
Teammates candidly have nicknamed Graham a "liger" because of his tenacity on the court. The name, a mixture of a lion and a tiger, is taken from the movie Napoleon Dynamite.
"He does it in practice," Dews said. "His energy excites all of us."
So far, the energy of the Miami basketball team has been the only excitement for South Florida sports fans. The football program is rebuilding, and all of the area pro sports teams endured or are in the middle of disappointing seasons.
Now the Hurricanes just have to continue to build on the success. They figure eight wins in the ACC should be enough to qualify for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2001-02 season. That would complete the turnaround Haith envisioned when he was hired four years ago.
FOOTBALL TEAM SEES CHANGES
Miami football coach Randy Shannon repeatedly talked about stability throughout last year's dismal 5-7 season. He wanted to keep assistant coaches around and limit the amount of change in the program.
But after the Hurricanes missed a bowl game for the first time in 10 years, there has been plenty of change. Shannon fired defensive coordinator Tim Walton and is likely to make another staff change as signing day approaches. Walton was let go after the Hurricanes' defense produced one of the worst seasons in school history. They allowed at least 40 points three times.
The end for Walton likely came after Miami was defeated 48-0 by Virginia in the final game at the Orange Bowl.
The good news for Miami is that it still possesses the nation's top recruiting class, according to ESPN.com. Although highly touted cornerback Patrick Johnson of Ely High in Pompano Beach switched his commitment to LSU, the Hurricanes still have a strong group coming in.
They were able to land Kansas linebacker Arthur Brown and six players from Miami Northwestern High, which finished the season ranked No. 1 in the nation by USA Today. They include wide receiver Aldarius Johnson, offensive lineman Brandon Washington and defensive tackle Marcus Forston. Another Northwestern player, quarterback Jacory Harris, will compete for the starting job at UM right away.
In December, senior Kirby Freeman transferred to Baylor, after Shannon told him he would serve as a mentor for the team's younger quarterbacks. Freeman started last year's opener before losing the job the following week to senior Kyle Wright. Freeman did lead the Hurricanes on the winning drive against Florida State, their last victory. His departure left UM with almost no experience at quarterback.
Harris, who enrolled in January, will compete with redshirt freshman Robert Marve for the starting QB job. Marve is expected to win out, but it will be an interesting competition. The players have won the last two Mr. Football awards in Florida, and both led their high school teams to state titles.