Canes seek return to Tournament

The University of Miami men's basketball team had their plans for the month of March last season adjusted just a little bit. Instead of forming part of the 65-team bracket that makes up the NCAA Tournament, the Hurricanes found themselves playing in the National Invitational Tournament.

Quite a strange feeling for a team that was had grown accustomed to making reservations for college basketball's biggest stage under departed head coach Leonard Hamilton from 1997-99.

Miami finished the season 16-13 after losing to Auburn in the first-round of the NIT and could never find consistency as they dealt with the loss of four starters, the hiring of a new coach and the installment of a fresh system.

It took most of the season as Hurricanes head coach Perry Clark tried in vain to learn about his players and vice versa. After so many years of Hamilton's halfcourt style, the Hurricanes were left to adjust to much faster pace with Clark.

"It was like the first day of school for myself and a lot of the kids," said Clark, who coached 11 seasons at Tulane University before arriving in Coral Gables last year. "I don't think this ever reached a comfort level with each other that most basketball need. We were in transition."

Even with the return this season of nine players, including four starters, Clark isn't firm on what direction the Hurricanes might be headed. And despite some of his players pronouncing the Hurricanes ready for Final Four trip, Clark knows there is plenty of work that remains to be done before next March before the Hurricanes make any travel plans.

"Don't miss understand me, we have a chance of doing some exciting things this season, but we need a leader and some of that confidence that a experienced team plays with. We're not there yet," said Clark.

"People look at our team with the guys coming back and immediately think we're going to blow by people. You need intangibles in basketball and that's what I'm searching for on this team. I'm looking for a team that is in control out there. Ithough at times we couldn't handle the difficulties in games. We didn't have that one guy who couldcarry us for a 10-15 minute stretch in games."

Not too many people know who will be among the Hurricanes who form a leadership core, although Clark has some ideas. One of those ideas is putting the ball in the hands of Salmons a lot more this season.

"You can all right this down ‘John Salmons will get a chance to win basketball games," said Clark. "We will look for John late in games. There is no question in my mind about that." Salmons, whose versatility will help the Hurricanes at four different positions, ranked second on the team in scoring (13.3) and first in rebounding (6.0), assists (4.0) and steals (2.0) last season. He has played every position except center and is arguably the only player in the Big East that could accomplish such task.

Salmons started all 29 games at shooting guard a year ago and is the only player in the Big East to rank among the leaders in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and field goal percentage. Salmons scored in double figures 23 times last season and has started 75 consecutive games for the Hurricanes. Salmons' work load won't be reduced as Clark expects to play him 30 minutes a night.

After spending most of the summer working out daily with several NBA players, Salmons is ready for the grind of the season. He relishes the challenge that Clark has placed on the table. "I feel a lot stronger and quicker and can't wait to get started," Salmons said. "We have the talent on this team to make the Final Four. I'm not just saying that for bulletin board material. I really believe in this team."

Whenever Salmons isn't bringing the ball up, the Hurricanes will look at Michael Simmons at the point. The 6-0, 185-pounder ranked second on the team (2.5) and a had a team-best 1.45 assist to turnover over ratio. The Hurricanes are counting on Simmons to develop more of an offensive-minded approach this year.

"I'd like to see Simmons look to score, he has the ability," Clark said.

Adding depth to the point guard position will be freshman Kahleaf Watson. Watson (6-2, 185 pounds) averaged 18.1 points, 4.5 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 3.0 steals per game last season in leading Blue Ridge High School to a 25-7 record and its second straight state title.

"Kahleaf is really explosive. He could push some people for quality minutes," Clark said. Sophomore Marcus Barnes will also push for playing time at both guard spots and will be important to the Hurricanes success. Barnes showed the capability of scoring with nine double-figure points games. Barnes scored a season-high 24 points in Miami ‘s 77-74 victory over Connecticut to land Big East player of the week honors.

Barnes is one of numerous UM players that worked endlessly in the off-season. Clark is hoping it pays off when the season tips off. "Marcus needs to learn how to win a basketball game. He needs that game-on-the-line experience." The return of 6-9 Elton Tyler after a year's absence will only strengthen a formidable frontcourt.

Tyler, who missed last season with academic problems, gives the Hurricanes a strong rebounder and critical inside scoring. Two years ago, Tyler averaged 10.1 points, 5.5 rebounds and posted 14 double-doubles during the 1999-2000 season. He has averaged 50 percent shooting for a career at Miami. Tyler arrived back in camp at 260 pounds and is playing his way into shape.

"Getting Elton back gives up instant credibility inside and is extremely important to have in the Big East. His ability to pass will also give our shooters a chance to score on the perimeter." Junior power forward James Jones and sophomore Darius Rice both return after recording strong seasons last season.

Rice was named to the All-Big East Rookie team last season after posting a team-high 14.1 points. Rice recorded 20 double-figure scoring games and scored over 30 twice including a career high 35 against Central Florida to set a fresmen record.

Rice admitted several months ago that making the transition from high school to Division I basketball wasn't as easy as he first thought. Rice had to deal with not being the only scoring option on the floor.

"I know I took a lot of heat last year for looking to shot and not really developing other areas of my game," said Rice. "I've worked hard and feel like a different player thi season. There are other things I can do to help this team win basketball games."

Music to Clark's ears.

"There are so many things like playing good defense, rebounding the ball and getting people the ball that Darius can do for this team. He can be a special player even when his shot isn't falling," Clark said. "When you come in as a high recruit with the reputation of a scorer like Darius. It was tough to focus on other parts of his game."

Jones started all 29 games last year and averaged 11.9 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.6 blocks. He ranked third on the team in scoring, second in rebounding and second in blocks. Jones also had 47 three-pointers.

Miami also has plenty of extra bodies up front starting with 6-7 sophomore Rodrigue Djahue. Djahue, still learning the game, showed signs last year with 4.1 points and 2.7 rebounds a game.

Junior college transfers Rafael Berumen and Will Frisby were added to the mix over the summer. Berumen (6-9, 255 pounds) led Los Angeles City College to a 32-4 record with 18 points and nine rebounds per contest.

Frisby attended Fresno City College last season and averaged 18.5 points, 10.8 rebounds amd 1.6 blocks last year. He shot 57.8 percent from the floor.

"I feel confident that I can step in and help this team anyway possible," Frisby.

A peek at the Hurricanes schedule would indicate they could pile up victories in the first several weeks before things get tougher. Miami opens the season in the Virgin Islands Invitational Nov. 18 and host Howard, FAU and Lafayette to close out the inaugural month of the season.

The Hurricanes will be tested in non-conference games against Indiana in the Orange Bowl Classic (Dec. 15), Charlotte (Dec. 22) at the Miami Arena and LSU (Dec. 27) in the Sugar Bowl Classic.

Miami opens the Big East portion of the schedule with four consecutive road games at Georgetown, Connecticut, St. John's and Virginia Tech. Miami will host Providence, Pittsburgh, Boston College, Connecticut, St. John's and Notre dame.

"The Big East is so balanced," Clark said. "There are just a couple of teams at the top and then there are a number of teams at that next level. That is way I believe we have the premier conference-there is no telling who is going to win it."

Clark said playing LSU, Indiana and Charlotte in December will serve as a great measuring stick for the Hurricanes. Don't forget the trip to Virginia Tech, either.

"Blacksburg is wonderful around New year's," joked Clark.

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