Last season, Miami lost 11 of its last 12 games, fired its coach, lost its best player to graduation, watched two players transfer and lost its top committed recruit. The onset of this season brought only more bad news, with the Hurricanes picked to finish last in the ACC. They were largely mentioned only in the context of how their arrival would upset the tradition of the ACC, which appeared too superior for the former Big East school best known for football.
But in mid-January, Miami (12-3, 3-1) is tied for third in what widely is considered the nation's strongest conference. It is the best four-game start to conference play by any expansion team in ACC history. Miami's sudden emergence under its first-year coach, Frank Haith, has been one of the biggest surprises in the country. Florida State Coach Leonard Hamilton called it a "storybook situation."
Coach Frank Haith has led Miami to a surprising 12-3 record, 3-1 in the ACC, in his first season at the school.
(Wilfredo Lee -- AP)
The Hurricanes will get their first true baptism in the ACC this week when they host undefeated Duke tomorrow and travel to No. 6 North Carolina on Saturday. Respect, though, already has been granted. When asked about the ACC's top teams, Georgia Tech Coach Paul Hewitt rattled off Wake Forest, North Carolina and Duke before saying, "and you somehow have to factor them [the Hurricanes] in until someone beats them."
Trite as it sounds, Miami credits its success to continued improvements made this season. In November, the Hurricanes lost to South Carolina State and Xavier, teams outside the top 200 in the Ratings Percentage Index that measures team strength.
Haith said the breakthrough came in a 72-65 victory at then-No. 18 Florida on Dec. 4. "Our guys gained confidence," Haith said of Miami's first win in Gainesville in more than four decades.
Perhaps most important to Miami's success is Guillermo Diaz, the sophomore who keys a three-guard attack. At 6 feet 2, Diaz is supremely athletic and has been called a college version of Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade. Diaz has scored no less than 19 points in any of four ACC games. "He has the ability never to feel any pressure," said Hamilton, who also called Diaz a "once-in-a-lifetime player."
Virginia Tech Coach Seth Greenberg remembered recruiting Diaz when Greenberg coached at South Florida. During one scouting session, Greenberg half-joked that Diaz jumped so high he was "putting his armpit in the rim."
Another 6-2 guard, junior Robert Hite, has scored in double figures in every game and has made at least four three-pointers in five games. "They have three tremendous guards," North Carolina State Coach Herb Sendek said. "I mean, tremendous guards."
League coaches said Miami's front-court players don't stray from defined roles, which mostly include rebounding. Miami is the ACC's best offensive rebounding team and ranks second to Maryland in overall rebounding.
"I'm not surprised [by Miami] after watching film of them before the season," Hewitt said.
Awaiting Elder's Return
Hewitt seemed cautiously optimistic that B.J. Elder could return as early as Saturday, when the Yellow Jackets host Virginia Tech. Elder has been sidelined since straining his left hamstring in the first half of Georgia Tech's 70-68 loss to Kansas on Jan. 1. Hewitt said Elder practiced some this weekend and the coach is hopeful that Elder could return to practice Thursday. Georgia Tech has lost two straight road games without Elder, most recently falling to North Carolina State on Sunday.
"Our decisions in transition are not as good," Hewitt said of his team's struggles.
Williams Plays Down Dispute
Maryland Coach Gary Williams yesterday played down his recent dispute with point guard John Gilchrist, which centered around how to best run the offense. "A lot was made of something that was not that big of a deal," Williams said. . . .
Maryland and North Carolina State will play a combined nine conference games on Sundays, including Sunday's matchup between the two teams at Comcast Center. Both teams' coaches appreciate the exposure that comes with playing on Sundays, particularly after the NFL playoffs conclude. But Sendek said he would prefer to play on Saturdays to give players a true day off on Sundays, when they wouldn't have to attend practice or school. "It's not easy on the players," added Williams. "That, coupled with 9 p.m. games, can make the schedule very difficult."