Big East Exit A Painful One

Despite a recent losing skid, a mediocre record and an embattled coach, the University of Miami men's basketball team could stamp a ticket to the Big East tournament with a victory over West Virginia. Instead, the Hurricanes closed a disappointing season with a 58-53 setback to the Mountaineers, insuring Miami's omission from the league championships and second consecutive losing record.

Knowing all they needed was a win to extend their season, after Georgetown dropped it's regular season finale, the Hurricanes (14-16, 4-12 in the Big East) were plagued by problems that have become all too familiar in Coral Gables; poor defense, letting a lead slip away and inability to score in crucial moments. The Hurricanes, playing in their final season in the Big East, allowed the Mountaineers to shoot 50.4 percent, while going scoreless in the final 2:54 of the game. UM went on a 12-3 run to take a 51-48 lead at the 5:54 mark of the second half, but could not hold off the Mountaineers.

End result: Miami will not be participating in the Big East tournament for the first time since the 1990-91 season. The Hurricanes lost 11 of their last 12 games and will now face an off-season filled with questions. At the top is the uncertain future of head coach Perry Clark, who endured heavy criticism this season. Clark has three years remaining on a contract that pays him $750,000 annually, but there is no indication he will be back for sure with the Hurricanes next season.

Miami will begin play in the Atlantic Coast Conference next season, and many close to the program privately endorse Clark's removal. Athletic director Paul Dee said recently he would wait until the end of the season to make a decision. But Clark said that the program is headed in the right direction despite finishing next-to-last in the Big East.

"I have the background and resume to understand where a program is. I've been through transitions before, and we just have to add some pieces," said Clark, who is 65-54 in four seasons with the Hurricanes. "We are not that far we're building. I know it bothers people, but in college you have to rebuild. I think guys have gotten better and I think the program has progressed in my years here."

Some would question Clark's observation. After finishing 16-13 and qualifying for the National Invitational Tournament in 2000-01, Clark's first season, the Hurricanes reached the NCAA Tournament with a school-record 24 wins. But Miami is 25-33 since. The Hurricanes were eliminated in the first-round of the Big East tournament last year. This season Miami got off to a 10-5 start. But two of those losses came against Florida State and North Carolina; the top-rated teams UM had faced at that point.

"Sometimes the only way to grow is through pain," Clark said.

The play of senior forward Darius Rice came into question this season. Despite averaging a team-leading 16.9 points this season and becoming the school's fourth all-time leading scorer, Rice struggled to a career-low 41 percent shooting from the floor. Considered an NBA draft lottery pick last October, Rice's stock steadily dropped as he struggled with his ball-handling and defense. Rice's critics also argued that the 6-10, 215-pounder never developed his inside game. Rice, who arrived at UM a McDonald's All-American, had his most productive season as a junior when he averaged 18.7 points per game and shot 43 percent from the floor.

"I've got to move on. God knows things before they happen," said Rice. "And maybe this is the way it was supposed to happen."

But Rice wasn't the only problem. Miami was 13th in scoring defense, allowing 68.9 points per game, while opponents shoot 45.2 percent. The Hurricanes lack of interior presence was evident as they finished 10th in rebounding (35.3 rpg) and 11th in blocked shots (3.5) per game. UM also averaged over 17 turnovers per contest.

Although the Hurricanes will have nine players returning next season there will only be one senior (Will Frisby) on the team if the roster doesn't change. With Rice gone most of the offensive burden could fall on Rob Hite and Guillermo Diaz. Hite, who will be entering his junior season, was the Hurricanes leading scorer in six of the first 14 games of the season including a season-high 27 points against North Carolina. Hite finished the season shooting 49 percent (168-344) from the floor, but he struggled in the latter part of the season. Diaz, who averaged 11.8 points per game, could emerge as the Canes go-to-guy after a solid freshman season.

"There's a lot of potential here," said Clark.

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