|Surprising Hurricanes likely headed for the NCAA tournament|
|Written by Admin|
|Friday, 07 March 2008 02:08|
Then he dismissed the notion.
``The season is basically almost over,'' Collins said.
``No, it's not!'' interjected coach Frank Haith, eavesdropping 15 feet away.
Collins turned sheepish and said he was thinking in terms of the regular season, which ends Saturday at Florida State. But for the first time in Haith's four years as coach, Miami has a chance to play deep into March.
A comeback victory Wednesday over Boston College virtually assured the Hurricanes of their first NCAA tournament berth since 2002.
``Then the best is yet to come,'' Collins said. ``We plan to keep winning.''
Miami is 26th in the RPI. Thanks to victories in six of the past seven games, the Hurricanes are 21-8 overall and 8-7 in the rugged Atlantic Coast Conference. That's likely to satisfy the selection committee.
``I think we're in,'' Collins said.
Haith agreed, saying league history is on Miami's side. Since 1985, no 20-win team has gone .500 in the ACC and failed to make the tournament.
Even before the Hurricanes lost six of their first eight conference games this year, few envisioned them in the tournament. Coming off a 12-20 record a year ago, they were picked for last place at the preseason ACC meetings.
``I said, 'I think we're a top-half team,' and people looked at me cross-eyed,'' Haith said. ``There's no question it's very gratifying. I never doubted we had enough on this team to compete in the upper division of the conference.''
Eight league wins represent a breakthrough - it's the most for the Hurricanes since they joined the ACC in 2004. With a victory at Tallahassee, they can earn a first-round bye in next week's conference tournament.
``We're real confident right now,'' guard Lance Hurdle said. ``We believe in ourselves.''
The recent run included a win over Duke, the Hurricanes' first victory against a top-five team in nine years. They had lost 13 in a row against Boston College before Wednesday's win. They've also beaten Clemson and Virginia Tech, both ahead of them in the league standings.
South Florida, historically apathetic about college basketball, has been slow to notice. But the team's success is a welcome change for an area numbed by the losing of the last-place Miami Dolphins, Miami Heat and Florida Marlins, and the Hurricanes' bandwagon is gradually growing.
Early-season crowds were less than 2,000, but Wednesday's victory drew 5,953 fans, and the atmosphere became boisterous as the Hurricanes rallied from an 11-point deficit in the second half to win by 13.
Afterward Haith grabbed the public-address microphone to thank the crowd. The Hurricanes' 14-2 home record - best in school history - reflects his success in cultivating a home-court advantage.
``We're heading in the right direction,'' he said. ``There is no question we've made great strides. We're 14-2 at home because of our crowd.''
The Hurricanes will be on the road from now on, but this is a team that travels well thanks to its scrappy defense and depth.
A nine-player rotation is led by guards Hurdle, James Dews and Jack McClinton, Miami's top scorer at 17 points per game and the leading 3-point shooter in the ACC. Sophomore forward Collins has blossomed into an inside force, averaging 13 points and seven rebounds in the past five games.
Next week, the Hurricanes will try to advance beyond the second round of the league tournament for the first time. Then comes the NCAA tournament, where Miami has won only three games, the most recent in 2000.
For a program with such a modest tradition, this has already been a banner season. And the best may indeed be yet to come.
``It feels great,'' McClinton said. ``We learned from how bad we did last year; we didn't want that to happen again. Everybody has worked tremendously hard, and great things are going to happen.''