In their final season in the Big East, the men’s basketball team wants to leave the conference as a champion, not a laughingstock. Led by a senior superstar, mature sophomores, and an exciting group of freshmen, the Hurricanes feel that they have a chance to do so.
Head Coach Perry Clark suffered through one of the worst seasons of his career in 2002-2003, leading the ‘Canes to an 11-17 record and a first-round exit at the Big East Tournament. The Hurricanes showed flashes of brilliance, but ultimately injuries and inconsistency took their toll and the ‘Canes were never able to get anything going.
Clark will rely on Darius Rice to lead the young team into prominence. Rice, a preseason candidate for the National Player of the Year Award, averaged 18.7 points and 5.8 rebounds last season, including a career-high 43 points against Connecticut on national television.
Rice will be counted on to provide a large portion of the Hurricanes’ scoring, as he is the only established offensive threat for the ‘Canes. The pressure is on the senior from Jackson, Mississippi on several different levels.
“I think the pressure is on me because I want to go high in the draft,” Rice said. “I think a lot of people overlooked me and a lot of people don’t give me the respect that I think I deserve and this year I’m going to go out there and prove it to everybody.”
Fortunately for Clark, the Hurricanes have other options when opposing defenses focus on Rice. Sophomore Robert Hite has matured a physically and emotionally after playing substantial minutes during his freshman season, and is ready to become a consistent contributor for the ‘Canes.
“I’ve worked hard over the summer and I’m trying to get better with my defense,” Hite said. “I’ve been working on my shot and I got a little stronger. I’m just trying to get better all-around so I can help my teammates this year by being a leader.”
Sophomore point guard Armondo Surratt will have the important responsibilities of controlling the tempo of each game, distributing the ball effectively, and hitting open shots. Surratt will be a critical part of an offense that Clark hopes can sustain a fast pace throughout the season.
“We really want to run,” Clark said. “One of the things so far is that we’ve shown that we can put some numbers on the board. We have to be able to do that without giving up points.”
The Hurricanes have received a huge boost from the return of forward William Frisby, who sat out the 2002-2003 season with a foot injury. The junior provides rebounding, defense, and toughness for a team that struggled with all three last season.
Frisby is excited to be fully healthy and back on the court for the ‘Canes.
“It has been a tough two years,” Frisby said. “I’m focused on being the best player that I can be.”
The x-factor for this year’s Hurricanes will be the play of the freshmen off of the bench. Clark has been thrilled with the play of touted recruits Guillermo Diaz, Karron Clarke, Anthony Harris, and Anthony King. All four will earn valuable minutes and will be asked to mature and learn on the fly this year.
“This is a young basketball team,” Clark said. “We have a young basketball team. They have to grow. What we’re doing is being very hard on them to get them to grow as quickly as we possibly can. I think that they are competitive, and I think that they listen, and they accept criticism and try to correct it.”
The Hurricanes schedule features many intriguing match-ups before Big East play even begins, as the team will take on several local rivals and make a trip to Chapel Hill for a rematch with North Carolina, whom the ‘Canes defeated in their first game at the Convocation Center last year.
“Even in the early part of our schedule, we have a lot of emotional games,” Clark said. “Florida International will be an emotional game, Florida Atlantic will be an emotional game…Florida State as well, and then we have to go back to North Carolina after beating them last year. So I think there are some real emotional games, and to me, you don’t really want that in the preseason.”
Rice said that he is enthusiastic about the way this year’s team is developing, and feels they are capable of overcoming the criticism they faced at the end of last season.
“I think we’re learning and we’re getting better…I think the team is really athletic,” Rice said. “We can really run. We can take five guys out and put five more in…I think this team can do some big things.”
The Hurricanes begin regular season play at the Convocation Center on November 21 against Lubbock Christian.