No Room For Error

Tick-tock. Tic-tock. It may be early February and too soon to worry about post-season conference championships or seedings in the NCAA Tournament for men's college basketball fans in most parts, including Gainesville, Fla., Austin, TX., Pittsburgh, PA., and Tucson, AZ. But closer to home that's not exactly the case.

Far from the top and one game removed from occupying the bottom of the Big East Conference with no company, the University of Miami Hurricanes are not only in serious danger of missing the NCAA Tournament but also being excluded from the Big East Championships the second week of March.

The Hurricanes, coming off a defeat at St. John's last Sunday, have participated in every postseason conference tournament since 1991 and advanced to the NCAA Tournament four of the last five seasons.

But after falling to 9-9 overall and fifth in the Big East at 2-5, Miami is just one game ahead of Virginia Tech in the conference's East Division with just nine regular-season games remaining on their schedule. The last-place team in each division will not make the conference tournament, making a Feb. 11 meeting against the Hokies at the Convocation Center equally important on both sides.

Only that's too far down the line. The Hurricanes need to start finding solutions to their recent struggles. And they need to start finding them now- like Saturday night, Feb. 8, at home when they host the Villanova Wildcats (12-8, 5-2).

The Wildcats, first in the East Division, are in the midst of a three-game losing streak and haven't improved their win total since Jan. 22. The Wildcats have dropped consecutive conference game (West Virginia and Connecticut) after opening the Big East schedule with five straight victories. Villanova, coming off a 92-75 defeat to St. Joseph's, is looking for anyway out. "We need a win badly," says senior guard Gary Buchanon, who leads the Wildcats with 15.6 points a game.

The Hurricanes share Buchanon's sentiments.

Stuck at .500 at this stage of the season and facing an uphill battle to climb back into the Big East race, the Hurricanes know time is running out on their season. At this point Miami might have to get into the Big East tournament and win it outright to move into the NCAA Tournament. But according to senior James Jones the Hurricanes have plenty of work ahead. Although the Hurricanes lack the overall experience enjoyed by other top programs in the country, the Hurricanes have managed to stay within striking distance in most of the games. It's closing the deal out that has been a problem.

Despite an impressive showing against the current No. 1 Florida earlier in the season, in a game that took two overtime before the Gators prevailed, and a win over North Carolina last month to open the Convocation Center, the Hurricanes have been plagued with an inability to score points in the most crucial of times and a lack of offensive support beyond junior forward Darius Rice and senior James Jones. Rice and Jones, Miami's top-two leading scorers, rank first and second in 11 offensive categories for the Hurricanes.

With the team's scoring punch limited besides Rice and Jones, opposing teams have doubled down defensively on both players most of the season and forced other players on the team to shoot the ball in the waning minutes of games. And for the most part the plan has worked to perfection- even with Rice (19.2 points a game) and Jones (17.2) being productive. The next leading scorer after Rice and Jones is freshman Robert Hite. Hite is averaging 7.1 points a game.

Plain and simple: Miami has been unable to score consistently and stop the opposition when it's counted the most.

Against Connecticut Jan. 20 it took a career-night (43 points) and miracle finish courtesy of Rice to pick up a buzzer-beating victory. The Hurricanes had no tricks against Syracuse as Jones and Rice fell victim to swarming defense by the Orangemen. Rice missed all four of his shots in the final minutes as Miami went the final 8:38 without a hoop. In their latest meltdown Hurricanes committed 19 turnovers that led to 30 St. John's points.

Says Rice who is ninth in the Big East in scoring: "We have no excuses. We always do it to ourselves. If it's not one thing it's another." Despite an impressive showing earlier in the season against current No. 1 Florida, in a game that the Gators needed two overtimes to win, and a Convocation-opening victory against North Carolina last month, the Hurricanes have at times shown their inexperience with sloppy ball handling and poor shot selection. UM coach Perry Clark knew there would be days like these but wants improved play out of his youngsters. "I know most of the guys have never been through this but we're well into the process," says Clark. "There is nothing us I can do."

Villanova is seventh in the Big East in scoring (76.6) and most of that has been provided by Buchanon and senior forward Ricky Wright. Buchanon, first in the conference in three-pointers made with 61, is a long distance threat and can also break down a defense with his ability to drive to the basket. He is 94-of-223 from the floor and is above average from the free throw line (32-of-36, 89 percent). Wright, averaging 13.1 points a game, is a force inside with 7.8 rebounds a game.

"If I knew what the problem was I'd tell you," says senior forward James Jones, who struggled to come up with words to describe Miami's inconsistent ride through the Big East this season. "Something always goes wrong, man. It never fails. We have to play tougher defense when the game is on the line and knock some shots down. We can't be tentative."

Villanova leads the all-time series 10-9. The Hurricanes have won four of the last five games dating back to Jan. 11, 1997. Saturday's game will be the first meeting of the schools since Jan. 11, 2000, a UN 67-66 overtime victory.

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