Uphill climb

The University of Miami men's basketball team is still clinging to hopes they will be playing past the regular season- just barely. Plagued by inconsistency since the start of the Big East schedule in January, the Hurricanes snapped a two-game losing streak earlier this week against Virginia Tech and more importantly climbed out of the cellar in the conference's East Division.

But the Hurricanes (10-10, 3-6) are still a long ways from securing a berth in the conference tournament that follows the end of the regular season.

The good news: With seven regular-season games remaining, the Hurricanes are still tied with Virginia Tech and Providence for fifth place in the division. In addition, the Hurricanes hold tiebreaker advantages over Providence and Virginia Tech by virtue of victories against both teams. The bad news: The team that finishes last in the division will not qualify for the Big East tournament. Miami still has road games remaining at Providence and Virginia Tech.

But given the fact the Hurricanes are in danger of missing the conference tournament for the first time in school history and no shoe-in to play anywhere come March, Miami has its sights set on the Conte Forum in Chestnut, Hill. That's where this Saturday, Feb. 15, the Hurricanes will attempt to beat the Boston College Eagles for the first time since Jan. 22, 2000 and continue their slow climb to respectability.

Miami must win its remaining games and play deep into the Big East Tournament, if not win the entire thing, to have any chance at securing a berth in the NCAA Tournament. The possibility of the Hurricanes winning their remaining regular season games and then making a dent in the conference tournament is likely. But after defeating the Hokies Tuesday night, the Hurricanes feel like they're still in contention.

"It's not time to fold up our tents and go home. We're still in this thing," says Miami junior forward Darius Rice who is coming off a 32-point performance against the Hokies and has been the team's leading scorer in the last eight games. "I think the guys realize that it's that point in the season that we can't make up anymore excuses. I know I'm not. I'm still going out there trying to win every game. That's the bottom line."

The Hurricanes experimented by breaking out a new starting line-up against Virginia Tech that featured defensive-minded Eric Wilkins and burly freshman forward Gary Hamilton in place of Robert Hite and Armondo Surratt. And for the time being it worked as Wilkins marched a season-high with 13 points on 5-of-7 from the floor. Wilkins ignited a quick start to the second half for the Hurricanes with nine of the team's first 21 points. Hamilton contributed with seven rebounds and four blocks.

"It worked so we shouldn't change anything," said Rice.

For the time being anyway.

The Hurricanes have not fared well in unfriendly territory this season, winning just one of eight games on the road. Miami's only road win so far this season was at Central Florida back in December and the team knows that will have to change for them to have any kind of impact down the stretch. One of the problems has been hanging on to leads. The Hurricanes are just 3-8 in games decided by five points or less.

"We have to develop a hard-nosed mentality on the road I guess," said Rice. "We can't afford to make mistakes with games on the line."

Mistakes against the young but physical Eagles could cause the Hurricanes dearly. Boston College, third in the East Division of the Big East, goes the route of senior guard and conference scoring leader Troy Bell. Bell, who became the school's all-time leading scorer Wednesday night against Providence, has been asked to assume more of a leadership role on and off the court. And he has delivered.

Through Wednesday, Bell was first in scoring (24.2), second in steals (2.45 per game), fifth in three-point field goal percentage (.395), fifth in free throw percentage (.851) and ninth in assists (4.2 per game) in the conference. Bell has taken more shots at this point in the season than his previous three at the school but he has also excelled in getting his teammates the ball. An ample example is the success this season of 6-7 freshman forward Craig Smith. Aside from providing sufficient scoring inside, Smith has been a force inside with 8.2 rebounds a contest. Smith is seventh in the Big East in rebounding and first in field goal percentage (.614).

The Eagles lead the conference in scoring offense with 81.9 points per game.

UM coach Perry Clark fell short of proclaiming the victory against the Hokies the most important one during his tenure at the school. But Clark did indicate that the line-up switch he made did help contain Virginia Tech and will be needed in a major way again against the Eagles.

"We have to stop teams from getting easy points in the paint," Clark said.

Miami was aided against Virginia Tech by a season-high shooting percentage of 51.7 percent. And if ever there were a time to keep it going it would be against the Eagles. Boston College's defense is allowing a league-worse 78.4 points a game.

"We have to find a way to put the ball in the basket," said Miami senior James Jones who is averaging 16.9 points on the season.

The added punch that Wilkins could potentially bring to the offense is also key. The Hurricanes, who have searched the entire season for a third scoring option, have no play averaging double-figures in points other than Jones and Rice.

Boston College leads the all-time series against Miami 13-8, including a season-sweep last year. The Eagles defeated the Hurricanes 76-63 at home Feb. 10th to complete the sweep.

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