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SPEAKING TO a reporter at Hurricanes Hoopfest—Miami's relatively subdued season-kickoff event, attended by 150 fans—senior guard Jack McClinton said, "Everyone has one common goal, and that's to win a national championship." It wasn't exactly a guarantee, but it still made headlines ( MCCLINTON TALKS OF NATIONAL TITLE, said The Miami Herald ) because in these parts, after all, the average fan understands the nuances of the BCS more than the Madness of Midnight or March.
A national championship in basketball? That would have been crazy talk a year ago, when Miami was picked to finish last in a preseason ACC poll. Instead, the Hurricanes went 23--11 and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament. Now four starters are back, including McClinton, Miami's first All-ACC first-teamer, and discussion of a deep tournament run isn't so far-fetched.
McClinton, a self-described late bloomer growing up in Baltimore, didn't start at Calvert Hall High until he was a senior. And it wasn't until he averaged 18.4 points per game during a postgraduate year at the South Kent ( Conn.) School that he received his first Division I scholarship offer, from Siena.
After his freshman year at Siena, however, his coach was fired, and McClinton, who averaged 13.6 points and 2.7 assists, decided to transfer. His father, Jack, sent Hurricanes coach Frank Haith a highlight tape of his son's exploits ("Jack didn't miss a shot," the coach said with a laugh last March), and Haith was impressed enough to offer McClinton a scholarship.
During McClinton's redshirt year Haith would sometimes call his cellphone on Saturday nights when the team was on the road. Invariably Haith would reach his young guard in the gym, working out by himself and proving that the motto tattooed on his left arm, NO PAIN, NO FAME, was more than just ink.
That work paid off last season, when McClinton led the ACC in free throw shooting (91.9%) and was second in three-point accuracy (42.7%). "He'll put in the time," Haith says, "almost to the point where I have to say, 'Jack, you have to get out of the gym.' He's as hard a worker as anyone I've ever been around."
Shortly after Haith installed Lance Hurdle at the point alongside McClinton and James Dews, the offense began to click. The Hurricanes won six of seven, including an upset of No. 5 Duke. Dews is one of five returnees who shot at least 37% from beyond the arc for the ACC's top three-point-shooting team.
Though a national title still seems out of reach, it marks a sea change in the program's culture that such a pursuit has become a realistic goal. "Jack's right," says Dews. "If we keep playing hard and playing together, the sky's the limit."