Not Much Expected From Hurricanes

University of Miami senior forward Darius Rice has heard just about all the reasons why the Hurricanes are viewed as an afterthought for the 2003-04 season, the team's farewell tour in the Big East Conference. "They all say we're inexperienced and young, which we are," says Rice, who led the Hurricanes in scoring last season with 18.7 points per game.

"But most of those same people are who are predicting us to be terrible haven't even seen all the players we have on our team. Nobody knows who they are, but believe when I say these guys are going to surprise some people. We have some talent on this team, and I think we can make some noise in the Big East."

Hardly anybody agrees with Rice.

The Hurricanes, coming off an 11-17 season that ended in the first round of the Big East Championships, are expected to finish near the bottom of the Big East for the second consecutive season. Despite the return of Rice and the additions of highly regarded freshmen Guillermo Diaz, Karron Clarke, and sophomore transfer Leonard Harden III, the Hurricanes were recently selected 11th out of 14 Big East teams in the preseason coaches' rankings.

"I think that's a lack of respect for our basketball team," said Rice. "But maybe that's a good thing. Maybe we can sneak up on a few people that way."

Said UM coach Perry Clark: "I can understand why people don't expect too much from us this season. "We only have a few guys returning and a lot of young guys. Nobody really knows who they are, and whether that will be the case at the end of the season remains to be seen."

But in order to sneak up on anybody the Hurricanes will need a season for the ages from Rice, a potential NBA lottery pick who will go into his final collegiate season as the Hurricanes only proven scoring option. Last season, Rice had the luxury of teaming with James Jones to give the team a solid one-two scoring punch. Two seasons ago, Rice could also count on John Salmons. But both of those players are gone, leaving Rice as the unanimous team leader.

"I'm ready to unleash my full arsenal," says Rice. "I've worked my tail off to expand my game. I guarantee you people are going to be shocked when they see me play this season."

Diaz, a Puerto Rican-born high school star, has turned plenty of heads in training camp with his shooting and leaping abilities. If Diaz's ball handling and shooting skills continue to improve at the current pace, the 6-2 guard could see significant playing time sooner than expected.

"Diaz has very good basketball skills," said Clark. "I think he's a lot further along than what we thought he would be."

Any contributions from Diaz would definitely help a team in search of a secondary scoring option, but there are other players that will need to elevate their games as well. Sophomore swingman Robert Hite, who displayed an ability to score early last season before tailing off, is being counted on to pick up some of the offensive punch. Sophomore Armondo Surratt will run the point and be watched closely by the coaching staff after committing some costly turnovers last season. Junior William Frisby and sophomore Gary Hamilton are the Hurricanes most reliable inside rebounders, at least on paper. Clark and Harden are also expected to contribute.

Rice nearly opted to enter the NBA draft last summer before deciding that another year of college basketball would help him improve his overall game and status with professional scouts. But the latter might be difficult to accomplish.

A former McDonald's All-American in high school, Rice arrived at UM surrounded by high expectations. Only problem is the 6-10, 215-pounder has had a tough time shrugging off a perception that he isn't physical enough to play at the next level.

Despite his size, most of Rice's points during his three years at Miami have come from the perimeter. That in turn has led most scouts to believe Rice lacks the physical tools to develop any kind of inside presence in the NBA.

Rice said he improved his ball-handling skills and inside game over the summer in Las Vegas while playing with several NBA players. In an effort to give Rice even more exposure Clark is already planning to use him a lot more at power forward this season.

"It doesn't really matter how you put the ball in the basket as long as you put it in," says Rice. "But I have a few surprises up my sleeve this year."

Whatever they are the Hurricanes will desperately need them.

After a relatively soft start to the schedule, which includes four of the first six games at home, the Hurricanes will host Florida International and Florida State in a span of nine days. The Hurricanes, who travel to North Carolina Jan. 7, will then close out December with three more games in Coral Gables before opening the Big East portion of the schedule January 10 at Pittsburgh.

It all starts tonight when the Hurricanes host Lubbock (Texas) Christian (2-1) in the Convocation Center as part of the Las Vegas Tournament. Returning junior point guard Brandon Jones and senior center Matt Rawls anchor the Chaparrals. Rawls, who averaged 10.9 points and 4.0 rebounds a game last season, had a team-leading 57.6 field goal percentage, while Jones added a team-high 17.3 points per game.

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