Canes look to rebound

University of Miami men's basketball coach Perry Clark recently wrote a letter encouraging the team's fans to show their continued support at the Miami Arena. Clark goes on to thank the fans for sticking by the Hurricanes this season, but acknowledges that the squad faces a challenging road ahead as they enter the home stretch.

Starting, Saturday night, Feb. 23, as the Hurricanes host the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (18-8, 8-5) in a key Big East conference game that could determine in which direction the teams head with March and the NCAA Tournament rapidly approaching Miami, ranked No. 13 in the USA Today/ESPN Coaches poll and No. 17 in the Associated Press poll, is 21-5 and 8-5 in the Big East. The Hurricanes, who have three regular-season games remaining, trail the Connecticut Huskies by two games in the East Division of the conference.

No matter the opponent, Clark knows the importance of each game at this point in the season.

"We're at the point now where all the teams are scratching and clawing to knock each other off," said Clark, 37-17 all-time with the Hurricanes. "When you play in the Big East there aren't to many nights you can afford to take off. There is nobody that should be taken lightly. Any team is looking to impress the selection committee with a win over a ranked opponent."

The Fighting Irish, 1-3 all-time at the Miami Arena, will be making their first trip to South Florida in over three seasons. Notre Dame has won four of six road conference games this year. The Irish, coming off a 89-76 victory over West Virginia this past Wednesday, have registered wins at Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Seton Hall and Georgetown, while dropping games at Syracuse and Rutgers.

With the win over West Virginia, Notre Dame moved into third place in the West Division of the conference, behind both Pittsburgh and Syracuse in the standings.

Despite a winning conference record, the Fighting Irish has lost non-conference games against Indiana, Alabama and Kentucky. But they defeated DePaul 82-55 back in December.

The Irish, who snapped a two-game losing steak against the Mountaineers, had lost two straight after wining five consecutive conference games. The Irish is 3-2 in their last five games.

Four of the five Notre Dame starters are scoring in double-figures. The Irish are led in scoring by senior forward Ryan Humphrey who is averaging 18.5 points . Earlier this week in the loss to Syracuse, the 6-8, 233-pounder recorded his 14th double-double of the season with 15 points and 13 rebounds.

Humphrey, who has started every game this season for the Irish, also has a team-leading 10.3 rebounds a game and 2.5 steals. He ranks third in the Big East with 65 blocked shots on the season (2.71 per game) and fourth in field goat percentage at 50 percent. Humphrey is also a proven presence on the glass with a conference-leading 167 defensive rebounds (6.96 per game). Freshman guard Chris Thomas has also provided quite a lift for the Irish averaging, 15.8 points (12th in the Big East) and a conference-leading 7.4 assists a game. Thomas, averaging 40.8 minutes in conference games, has dished out six or more assists in 18 games. Thomas is an 88 percent free throw shooter.

Senior forward David Graves has also been a solid contributor, averaging 14.6 points and 5.0 rebounds on the season. Graves is a 40 percent shooter from three-point territory and has made 85.3 percent of his free throws. He ranks second on the Irish with 46 steals on the year. Junior guard Matt Carroll, who has also started every game this season, is averaging 12.9 points and 4.6 boards a contest. Carroll, posting 2.2 assists a game, is third on the squad with 28 steals.

The Irish are averaging 78.3 points a game on offense (second in the league), while giving up 66.4 (sixth). UM is second in scoring defense (64.6) and is sixth in offense (73.8).

The Hurricanes, 3-3 in their last six games, are coming off a 64-61 loss at Rutgers last Sunday, Feb. 17. Miami was hurt by a season-high 21 turnovers and lack of an inside presence. Miami was outrebounded 41-33 by Rutgers. The Hurricanes also had trouble getting the ball inside because of the zone defense applied by the Scarlet Knights.

Miami had a chance to send the game into overtime before Darius Rice missed a three-pointer with time running out. Rice, who led the Hurricanes with 21 points against Rutgers, is UM's leading scorer at 14.5 points (16th in the Big East), followed by John Salmons (14.1), James Jones (12.8), Marcus Barnes (11.3) and Elton Tyler (10.9).

But the production off the bench for the Hurricanes has been shaky all season with only guard Michael Simmons and forward Rafael Berumen pitching in with any consistency. Berumen, averaging 8.6 minutes a game, is scoring 2.7 points a game and has added 2.1 rebounds. Simmons is averaging 2.6 points in over 16 minutes a game. Jones, averaging 6.5 boards a game, is second in the Big East conference with 69 blocked shots and additionally is an 83 percent free-throw shooter. Rice (6.2) is 17th in rebounding.

A win would mark the most regular-season victories for the Hurricanes since joining the Big East in 1991. The Hurricanes finished with 23 victories in 1998-99 and 1999-00, respectively. Miami hasn't played Notre Dame since the 2000 season, posting a 61-58 win in the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden.

Miami, who has defeated Notre Dame three consecutive times, trails in the all-time series 7-6. Notre Dame has not defeated Miami since a 71-68 win at the Miami Arena during the 1998-99 season. The Hurricanes will be trying to avoid only their second two-game losing streak of the season. Miami dropped consecutive games at Connecticut and St. John's in early January. Both teams first met in 1986.

After facing Notre Dame, the Hurricanes go back on the road to play Providence, Tuesday, Feb. 26, at 7:30 p.m. in a game that will be televised on ESPN 2.

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