Rice's return brings optimism to Canes

Darius Rice did not get the response from NBA scouts and general managers he was looking for. It didn't sit well with Rice either that he would be leaving the Hurricanes on the heels of another disappointing season and two courses short of his finance degree.

That was enough to convince the star forward to hold off turning pro and return to the University of Miami for his senior season. After saying repeatedly that he would opt for the NBA draft if received information proclaiming him a 16th overall selection or better, Rice will focus on getting ‘stronger' and ‘improving' his collective skills during his final season at UM.

"I feel another year of progression can only help me," said Rice who led the Hurricanes in points (18.7) and was second in rebounds (5.8) per game for the Hurricanes last season. "I talked to my teammates and recruits coming back and they were all excited."

With UM coach Perry Clark right at the top of the list.

After already losing leading rebounder James Jones to graduation, Clark would not admit that he was dreading the possibility of fielding a starting line-up next season without Rice in it. But without being asked Clark said that Rice's decision to stick around amounted as the Hurricanes top ‘signing of the summer'.

Now what seemed like a definite rebuilding process next season with the departure of four players, including forward Rafael Berumen and guards Michael Simmons and Paulo Coelho, has a glimmer of hope attached to it with the return of Rice.

The Hurricanes 2003-04 starting five could consist of three returning sophomores – Robert Hite, Eric Wilkins and Armondo Surratt - along with Rice and freshmen recruits Leonard Harden or Karron Clarke. Both Clarke (6-6) and Harden (6-9) are post players that can score and rebound and bring something to the Hurricanes they've rarely benefited from in recent years, according to Clark.

"We're going to be young but I feel comfortable with the nucleus of players we have coming back and the guys we have coming in," said Clark. "Everybody's going to be here this summer lifting and getting better. We're going to work harder than ever."

But no matter what the Hurricanes do in an effort to erase last season's 11-17 mark and first-round exit from the Big East Championships, Rice will undoubtedly be asked to shoulder most of the offensive responsibilities for UM.

Clark did say that Rice is now the unquestioned leader of the team, on and off the court. Translation: Any kind of success the Hurricanes enjoy next season will hinge strongly on Rice's performance. Apart from being the team's leading scorer last season, Rice ranked sixth in field goal percentage (.426), second in three-point shooting percentage (.364) and fourth in free throw shooting (.767), while tying for second in steals (37).

And although Rice would not elaborate on what areas of his game he would like to improve it is clear in Clark's view that the former McDonald's All-American must become more of an inside presence for the Hurricanes in addition to sharpening up his ball-handling skills.

"He's very important to our success," said Clark. "We're going to revolve a lot of things around him," said Clark. "When you have a player with the skills that Darius posses you have to use them to the fullest."

That remains to be seen- just ask scouts and general managers around the league. They were in part responsible for Rice's decision to stay in school after he sent an evaluation to the NBA asking for feedback.

But the panel, which consists of several front-office members and is headed by Stu Jackson, was not convinced that Rice would be taken in the first round. Although Rice did not discuss the report in-depth, there is widespread speculation that the 6-10, 205-pounder still does not posses the post game and defensive skills necessary to play in the NBA.

"I really don't put a finger on what I want to do," said Rice. "I just want to get better in every area of my game. If you take a look at Kobe (Bryant) and those guys, even though they're the best basketball players in the world, they're always working on getting better. That's what my main concern is right now."

Despite enduring some criticism from fans and media since arriving at UM in 2000 Rice's production has gradually improved with each season. As a freshman Rice was the Hurricanes top scoring at 14.9 points a game and added 4.9 rebounds a game, while adding 31 steals. In 2001-02, his sophomore season, Rice was selected as a second-team All-Big East member after averaging 14.9 points and 5.9 rebounds a contest.

"I'm just ready to get back to work," said Rice.

Even with Rice in the fold and possibly joining a trio of returning UM players in the starting-up many believe that the Hurricanes will once again occupy the bottom of the Big East. Rice wants to change that notion.

"Every year they ask me about the team and you know me I'm the most positive person around," says Rice. "I really feel we have the players here to give everybody a run for their money in the Big East. There are a lot of people out there who are going to think that I'm crazy but if everything falls into place we can win this thing."

Rice was asked if he would have thrown his name into the draft and then backed out.

"I think I was an all or nothing deal," said Rice. "If I were to put my name out there and then come back I think that would have raised some questions about me."

Clark is glad he doesn't have to answer those questions.

"Darius was our biggest signing of the summer," said Clark.

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