A resurging student section: “The Eye” of Hurricanes basketball

Photo credit: Josh Halper
Students cheer following Miami's win over Canisius on Tuesday Nov. 9 at the Watsco Center
Students cheer following Miami's win over Canisius on Tuesday Nov. 9 at the Watsco Center. Photo credit: Josh Halper

From the exterior, the Watsco Center may appear as your typical college basketball arena.

But inside, it has welcomed flurries of sellout crowds, both young and old, who have shared cheers, chants and standing ovations for Miami basketball’s most cherished individuals.

The Hurricanes storm through a barrage of extinguished smoke as the Frost Band of the Hour revs up its brass. Scorpions’ “Rock You Like a Hurricane” echoes and a wave of orange and green blankets a building that has kept its liveliness by upholding University of Miami tradition.

And among all the rumblings of college basketball, one group of people still sticks out. In the eyes of many, “The Eye” fuels a major burst of the Hurricanes’ energy from the opening tip through the final horn.

“We are in the ACC, which is one of the most competitive conferences, so we want a student section that matches that,” said Jacques Calixte, a sophomore majoring in health sciences and the co-basketball chair of “Category 5,” Miami’s student-led spirit organization. “We want it to bring all the energy, all the hype, all the explosiveness. Everything you love about UM, we want to bring it to UM basketball.”

The hype, however, is just getting back to what it’s been known for toward the Hurricanes’ postseason runs in March.

Last season was a campaign like no other for college basketball. Miami, along with 11 other Atlantic Coast Conference teams, played the entirety of the 2020-21 season behind closed doors. No fans were allowed into the Watsco Center for either of Miami’s basketball teams, leading to a unique experience.

The situation was about as eerie as could be. There were no shouts of encouragement or loud, erupting cheers on important baskets. There were no jeers for questionable officiating, there were no “defense” chants.

Instead, the Watsco Center stood in silence, with the chatter of players, coaches and broadcasters echoing to roughly 8,000 empty seats. Miami knows the importance of its fans, and knows that a return to normalcy can give them an edge in 2021.

“We play in the absolute best league in the country, with some of the iconic brands in college basketball,” Miami associate coach Chris Caputo said. “We want Miami to be a competitor, and we want those programs to come in and say, ‘Man, I didn’t know Miami had it like that.’”

The game of basketball is one that is built on momentum. The swing of confidence and belief that comes with a couple of stops on defense and some quick buckets in succession guides teams to wins. The boost of fan support behind their players only leads to more encouragement, but with none of that last season, teams had to find their own momentum.

“It was different, we miss our fans,” said women’s basketball forward Destiny Harden after Miami’s win in last season’s opener. “They play an important role, but we have to get through it.”

Adjusting to a vacant Watsco Center was quite difficult for men’s basketball, who lost four home games by less than five points. These sort of high-intensity basketball games normally give the edge to the home team, distracting opposing players on free throw attempts and with winding shot clocks, while encouraging their players to push for the win. Miami finished 7-8 at home last season, the only time in head coach Jim Larrañaga’s tenure that UM finished below .500 at “The Wat.”

It wasn’t just Miami who endured struggles defending its home court. ACC rival Duke finished with its worst home win percentage under head coach Mike Krzyzewski, going just 8-5 at Cameron Indoor. For reference, Duke lost just six home games in four seasons prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and Boston College and Wake Forest also finished the season with more home losses than wins.

For the majority of the last decade, the buzz of UM basketball’s student section reached its peak, drawing attention across campus and the conference as Miami dethroned top-10 ranked teams like Duke over multiple years.

Hurricanes hoops fanatics would look over and see UM’s student section hooting and hollering for its team, an oft ACC underdog, in what was then known as “Storm Surge.”

When the Canes rocked the hardwood against blue blood programs, the building’s amplitude soared right with their play.

“You felt like the environment was electric because you’re filling the building with the type of energy that the University of Miami can show, and also in a building that’s not overly big,” Caputo said.

But in recent years, those noise levels have dwindled. Miami collected wins in hardly half of its games and faced a myriad of injuries through two seasons, missing back-to-back NCAA Tournaments in 2019 and 2020.

With need for a refresh, Calixte and junior Rohin Vaidya, Category 5’s other basketball chair, took a brave step in steering Miami basketball’s student atmosphere back toward its towering levels.

For a college basketball student section of the ACC, that process wasn’t completed overnight.

“We wanted to have something new that everyone could feel like they were a part of,” Calixte said. “Just to make it consistent and to make it something, a tradition that will last multiple years, we actually spent numerous amounts of hours just planning little tips and tricks within the student section itself.”

There has always been Sebastian the Ibis patrolling the tight, courtside walkways, sporting the latest Hurricanes jersey with a “6” on the back and a shiny pair of “U” gloves for high five’s. But even Miami’s feathered icon now has a renewed expectation with students once again in attendance.

“People will follow us, but they will definitely follow Sebastian. For example, one of our new traditions is when there’s a player shooting, instead of putting up a ‘one,’ we’re going to hold up a ‘U’,” Calixte said on The Eye’s reimagined free throw ritual for Miami players, different from that of conference foes, such as Duke and North Carolina.

From added smoke canisters to ginormous confetti for 3-point shots and trademark cardboard cutouts of players’ heads, the plans don’t fade in riling up fans and taunting conference archnemeses.

“Even against UNC, we have a ‘Jumpman’ shirt because, you know, UNC is famous for the ‘Jumpman’ logo, so we have a Sebastian ‘Jumpman’ shirt just to mock them,” Calixte said.

Earning campus-wide recognition, even the Miami coaching staff has tipped its cap to the returnees.

“It’s very important that we have the connection with athletics and the coaches, and we knew we achieved that when they brought us thank you letters of how great the attendance was,” Calixte said. “We know it’s just the start. It’s a little taste and we know we’re going to become better. We’ve felt like we’ve had great feedback so far.”

As some of the top teams in the conference venture into the Watsco Center, The Eye is looking to turn Miami into a formidable setting in ACC play. The Hurricanes will host North Carolina, Florida State, Georgia Tech and Virginia, amongst others in the second half of the season, and Miami will need every decibel of noise from their fans to ensure important home wins.

“The fans are the reason we get so energized,” Hurricanes guard Kameron McGusty said. “It’s a lot easier when you have people in the Watsco cheering for you and giving the energy that you need.”

The crowd’s impact has already been felt at the Watsco Center this season. Big momentum-shifting plays, such as Sam Waardenburg’s second-half dunk against Canisius, got fans roaring again, and gave the Hurricanes big sparks to persevere for wins.

And the players, as many as 11 stepping on the hardwood each outing, haven’t failed to follow suit, either.

“We’ve actually been to their practices, we’ve been able to shake their hands, meet them, talk with them, and see how they just play,” Calixte said. “So now, the players know that we’re going to be supporting them, we know that the players support us and now they do actions such as [wearing] our giveaways that we’re promoting. They’ll do voiceovers for us when we want to do an intro hype video.”

The Eye’s involvement with the Hurricanes teams stretches beyond game days. Earlier in November, the organization held a pizza party with women’s basketball head coach Katie Meier and the rest of the Hurricanes’ women’s basketball team. In addition, members of The Eye attended open practices for both teams.

“We had our spirit group sit down during one of our practices,” Hurricanes forward Anthony Walker said. “We encourage a lot of our fans to come out and support us because we need that. That’s something that aids us in our winning.”

The fans have aided the Hurricanes’ form at home, winning three of their first four contests at the Watsco Center thus far. With thousands of fans at home games, college basketball is beginning to feel normal again. As conference play begins, the crowds are only expected to be louder, and The Eye will only continue to grow with the Hurricanes this season.

“We’re even thinking of some crazy things,” Calixte said. “We were thinking of having a siren [on game days] on top of Shalala, with a huge banner saying ‘It’s game day.’”

The Hurricanes open their ACC slate on Saturday against the Clemson Tigers. With Clemson already having picked up five wins this season, the Hurricanes will need their support to take down the Tigers. The Eye will be in full voice to bring the energy to guide the ‘Canes, as tip-off is scheduled for noon.