Fresh from an upset of Connecticut, Miami is aiming to take the NCAA tournament by storm
Leonard Hamilton sat in his hotel suite in Hartford last Friday night and recounted one particularly bad day he had early in his tenure as coach at Miami, when his team was beset with injuries and in the midst of a terrible losing streak. "I came back to my office after practice, shut the door behind me and just cried," he said. A moment after telling the story, Hamilton pulled a Bible out of his bag and read from James 1:4. "Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything." Setting the Bible on the couch beside him, Hamilton explained the passage's relevance: "There I was, feeling sorry for myself, when what I needed to do was understand that you grow stronger from struggles."
Apparently perseverance still hadn't finished its work, even after the Hurricanes' stunning 73-71 upset of then No. 2 Connecticut last Saturday, arguably the biggest win in Miami history. When the game was over, Hamilton stood alone at one end of UConn's Gampel Pavilion chatting up a security guard and glancing at his watch. At the opposite foul line his players were in the throes of celebration. Asked later what he was thinking at that moment, Hamilton replied, "We had to hurry and get on the bus to catch a 5:30 plane. You can't take too long to celebrate a win."
The victory moved the Hurricanes (19-5, 13-3 in the Big East through Sunday) to within a game of the Huskies (23-2, 14-2) in the conference standings and propelled Miami to No. 11 in this week's AP poll. That's the Hurricanes' highest ranking since 1960, when they made it as high as No. 8. Miami didn't even have a basketball program from 1971 to '85 because its board of trustees thought the sport was losing too much money. The Hurricanes have never won an NCAA tournament game, and if that streak is broken next month, Hamilton will probably mark the occasion by checking his watch. "I've been on the ladder with the scissors in my hand," he says, referring to his experience as an assistant for Kentucky's 1978 national champions. "I think this team has a chance to experience that, so this is not the time to celebrate."
Such talk was hard to imagine five years ago, when the Hurricanes went 0-18 in the Big East. That year Hamilton signed his most important recruit, 6'7" forward Tim James, a gifted athlete from Miami's Northwestern High, who, in addition to his hoops exploits, won the Big East high jump championship as a freshman and sophomore. He has spent the last four years writing his very own Book of James, evolving from a back-to-the-basket inside player as a freshman to a senior with a shooter's touch out to 17 feet. James is third in the Big East in scoring (19.1 points a game) and had 16 points and seven rebounds in the win over Connecticut Last week Miami announced that it would retire James's jersey, an honor the Hurricanes had previously bestowed only on Rick Barry, whose number 24 was taken out of service in 1971.
James and 6'5" junior swingman Johnny Hemsley account for 56% of Miami's scoring, but as the defeat of the Huskies demonstrated, the Hurricanes have balance. Junior Mario Bland, an undersized but sturdy center at 6'6" and 265 pounds, had 16 points and a game-high 14 rebounds, which helped Miami dominate the boards 49-34. Vernon Jennings, a 6'4" junior who has become a dependable point guard, dished out five assists. Thanks to a rotation that goes nine deep, the Hurricanes were one of the few UConn opponents who weren't worn out by game's end; if anything, the Huskies were the ones panting. "It's taken a lot of time for us to mature," Bland said afterward. "We see all the NCAA banners Connecticut has, all the NBA players they've produced. They have a lot of things we want to get."
After the Hurricanes had finished celebrating last Saturday, Hamilton walked into the locker room to quickly address them. (They had a plane to catch, after all.) It took him awhile to make his way to the front of the room, however, because each player stopped him to give him a hug. "He's come a long way," James said. "There weren't a lot of people in his corner a few years ago. We just wanted to make sure he enjoyed this a little."
Big 12 Leaders Ride the Bubble
At Texas, watching videotape requires careful attention and, occasionally, a box of Raisinets. Early this season first-year coach Rick Barnes showed his players a battle scene from Braveheart to teach them "the concept that there are things worth dying for," as he puts it Last month he rolled a clip from City Slickers in which Jack Palance tells Billy Crystal that each person has to choose "that one thing," the most important tiling in life, on his own. Wise guys might have pointed out that Palance's character dies soon afterward ("We didn't show that part," says Barnes), but the Longhorns bought the message. "For now," says sophomore center Chris Mihm, "that one thing is winning the Big 12 title."
When Texas had a 2-7 record-including losses to Houston, South Florida and San Diego—on Dec. 19, such talk would have drawn more laughs than City Slickers. But since then the Longhorns have been hotter than burnt orange, having raised their record through Sunday to 17-10 (12-2 in the Big 12) and clinched a tie for the conference regular-season title with last Saturday's 63-54 win over Texas A&M. The key to the turnaround, according to Barnes and the players, was a discussion they had after losing 56-46 to Princeton in December's Rainbow Classic. "We have more talent than they do," Barnes told his Longhorns, "but they won because they have a plan and they believe in it. That's what we need, a belief in what we're doing."