Breath of Fresh Air

Eric Wilkins chooses his words carefully. Rob Hite just breaks out into laughter. But even though both University of Miami men's basketball players try to stay clear of the question it's obvious they feel a sense of comfort that wasn't present last year

None of the Hurricanes have gone public with their thoughts of playing for the now departed Perry Clark, but Wilkins is looking forward to a fresh start. Coming off a 14-16 season that ended without a postseason berth and Clark's dismissal, the Hurricanes are just glad to be starting over under a first-year coach Frank Haith.

"Coach Clark had his way of doing things and Coach Haith does things his way. But there's no doubt some guys on this team feel pretty good about things right now," says junior guard Eric Wilkins. "We don't even have a lot of set plays because he (Haith) just let's us go at it with the understanding that we play smart basketball."

The Hurricanes, playing their initial season in the Atlantic Coast Conference open the season against Wofford, Saturday at the Convocation Center in Coral Gables.

Haith, 39, has his hands full as he takes over a team that lost its leading scorer in Darius Rice, was 4-12 in the Big East and attracted an average of 2,545 fans at the Convocation Center. Short on experience - only two seniors on the roster - and still a question in regards to their identity, Haith still believes he can make college basketball matter around these parts.

"I'm no dummy. I know that it's not going to be easy," says Haith, who spent five seasons as an assistant at Wake Forest before landing in Texas under Rick Barnes. "We have to win some basketball games and look good doing it. Ultimately, I'm the guy responsible to get the word out and make people in this community care about University of Miami basketball."

Lacking in size the Hurricanes will rely on returning starters Hite and Guillermo Diaz to kick start an offense that Haith promises will be up tempo. Hite, who averaged 15.2 points a game last season and was the team's high-scorer 11 times, finished second in field goals attempted, made three-pointers and free throws made. Diaz, who tallied 11.8 points a game last season, was selected to the All-Big East team.

Sophomore point guard Anthony Harris, a quick player who excels in the open floor, has impressed Haith so much he's earned the starting nod. The 6-2, 180-pounder is being counted on heavily after averaging just four minutes a game last season without a start.

Junior Gary Hamilton and senior Will Frisby will assume most of the responsibilities in the paint, but there could be plenty of help for them in junior transfer Glenn Batemon. Batemon, 6-11 and 335 pounds, started all 28 games last season at Fordham while posting 10.4 points and 5.6 rebounds a game. He finished in double figures 16 times.

Wilkins added that having Haith on board has rejuvenated a few of the older players who felt discouraged under Clark. Clark was let go with three years and $2.25 million remaining on his contract.

"We know the ACC is a tough league with a lot of tradition, but you have to remember these guys played in the Big East," said Haith. "We can't look at our schedule and be in awe of these guys. We just have to go out and meet each challenge on that schedule."

And it's a daunting one. After a pair of home dates to start the season the Hurricanes play consecutive games against Xavier (Nov. 27), Florida Atlantic (Nov. 29), Florida (Dec. 4) and Florida International (Dec. 7). UM plays it's first-ever ACC game at national runner-up Georgia Tech Jan. 6.

Two stretches during the ACC schedule could very well dictate where the Hurricanes end up. Miami hosts Florida St. (Jan. 15) and Duke (Jan. 19) before traveling to North Carolina (Jan. 22). The Hurricanes close out the regular season with road game against Florida St. (Feb. 22) and Duke (Mar. 3) in between a home date against Georgia Tech (Feb. 26).

"We know nobody expects anything from us so there's no pressure what's so ever," says junior guard Eric Wilkins. "There is a lot of talent on this basketball team and Coach Haith has really done a good job in defining their roles. Everybody feels comfortable that they can do the right things in this system."

Read between the lines: The Hurricanes are glad they have a fresh start.

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