Turnaround needed

A failed season on every level
The UM men’s basketball program has gone from a Big East contender to the cellar in just one season. A season that many will choose to forget. The question now is whether or not the ‘Canes will improve next year or continue its unexpected and intolerable regression.
UM finished the 2002-03 campaign with an embarrassing 67-52 defeat to Seton Hall in the first round of the Big East Tournament. The ‘Canes lost seven of their last eight contests, finishing the season with an 11-17 season and a 4-14 mark in the conference.
UM’s losing record marks the first time since 1995-96 that it will not play in the NCAA or National Invitation tournaments.
I will come out and say that this team by no means should have won the Big East and improved upon last season’s record. However, coming off a season in which the ‘Canes won a school-record 24 games and a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament should not be followed by a campaign that saw UM struggle to even earn a spot in this year’s Big East Tournament.
Entering the season, I saw a young team surrounded by two very good veterans in James Jones and Darius Rice. With the graduation of starting point guard John Salmons and starting center Elton Tyler, I expected UM to be competitive in the league, and at least earn an NIT berth.
The inconsistency of the ‘Canes this season only enhances my argument.
The ‘Canes proved they can compete with some of the top teams in the country. On Dec. 21, the ‘Canes lost to UF (A No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament) 94-93 in double overtime. UM beat a red-hot team in UNC (A NIT team) in the grand opening of the Convocation Center. UM defeated then ranked UCONN (A No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament) on a Rice buzzer beater, and only lost to Syracuse (A No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament) by five points a week later.
Now comes the ugly.
After beginning the season 5-0, UM inexcusably lost to FAU for the first time in its 16 meetings. On Jan. 18, the ‘Canes got humiliated at Seton Hall with a 76-53 defeat.
Then the ‘Canes seemed to give up on the season, losing seven of their last eight, with the win coming at the hands of the only team worse than UM in the Big East, Virginia Tech.
The question now is whom do we blame?
First, I look at the players who played the last couple of weeks of the season without any emotion or fight. They did not seem to be bothered by the close defeats that resulted in their first losing season in seven years. I closely observed the team down the stretch and noticed a lack of camaraderie, most notably during timeouts. The bench players would not even join the team in the huddle, and a certain senior guard on the bench was seen numerous times waving and laughing with friends in the crowd during stoppages of play of the Georgetown game. What he should have been laughing at was his team’s performance on the court.
With this said, I also must ultimately place blame on head coach Perry Clark. He clearly lost control of his team in the second half of the season. A constant juggling of lineups and playing time kept players unsure of what their role on the team was. Freshman point guard Armondo Surratt would start one game and play 35 minutes, and then barely get 15 minutes in another. Another freshman guard, Robert Hite, began the season as a starter, and appeared to be the third scorer that this team desperately needed. His playing time was sporadic towards the end of the season.
I am fully aware that Hite’s defense was poor, but he proved he can score, and if the team was losing, I don’t see why you wouldn’t sacrifice playing poor defense for 15 points or so a game. I believe the young players should have played more, over the likes of senior guards Michael Simmons and Paulo Coelho, who are average at best. This was necessary in order to give them more experience for the roles they will play next season.
In addition to being criticized for not developing talent, Clark also seemed to struggle in his game management. Eleven of UM’s 17 defeats were by five points or less.
As for next season, the ‘Canes, who clearly underachieved this season, could be even worse.
Miami will lose two senior starters – team leader Jones and Simmons. In addition, if Rice is projected as a first-round pick he will most likely declare himself eligible for the NBA draft. That will leave the ‘Canes without any veterans in its rebuilding process.
If the ‘Canes struggle next season, it may cost Clark, who is 22-26 in Big East play since he took over in 2000, his job at UM. Yet, Clark has the support of Athletic Director Paul Dee and does have three years left on his contract.
However, Clark does have some factors that help his case. In his defense, Clark was forced to dismiss starting shooting guard Marcus Barnes due to disciplinary reasons before the season started. In addition, UM lost projected starting forward/center Will Frisby for the season with a broken foot.
Even with the loss of Barnes and Frisby, I still expected the team to finish over .500.
Whether Rice stays or not, a lot of pressure will be put on three quality incoming recruits: junior college power forward Leonard Harden of Detroit, small forward Karron Clark from Brooklyn, N.Y., and Guillermo Diaz of Miami Christian. All will be forced into the mix, especially if Rice opts to go to the NBA. Rice has yet to comment on the issue and has until May 12 to apply to the draft.
The University of Miami has a successful athletic tradition and this is why I demand production from the men’s basketball team. Ask the athletic department, the players and fans how pleased they are that the women’s team has overshadowed the men’s squad this season.

You can reach Brian Poliakoff at b.poliakoff@umiami.edu.