Hurricane Force Fresh from an upset of Connecticut, Miami is aiming to take the NCAA tournament by storm

March 01, 1999

Leonard Hamilton sat in his hotel suite in Hartford last Friday
night and recounted one particularly bad day he had early in his
tenure as coach at Miami, when his team was beset with injuries
and in the midst of a terrible losing streak. "I came back to my
office after practice, shut the door behind me and just cried,"
he said. A moment after telling the story, Hamilton pulled a
Bible out of his bag and read from James 1:4. "Perseverance must
finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not
lacking anything." Setting the Bible on the couch beside him,
Hamilton explained the passage's relevance: "There I was,
feeling sorry for myself, when what I needed to do was
understand that you grow stronger from struggles."

Apparently perseverance still hadn't finished its work, even
after the Hurricanes' stunning 73-71 upset of then No. 2
Connecticut last Saturday, arguably the biggest win in Miami
history. When the game was over, Hamilton stood alone at one end
of UConn's Gampel Pavilion chatting up a security guard and
glancing at his watch. At the opposite foul line his players
were in the throes of celebration. Asked later what he was
thinking at that moment, Hamilton replied, "We had to hurry and
get on the bus to catch a 5:30 plane. You can't take too long to
celebrate a win."

The victory moved the Hurricanes (19-5, 13-3 in the Big East
through Sunday) to within a game of the Huskies (23-2, 14-2) in
the conference standings and propelled Miami to No. 11 in this
week's AP poll. That's the Hurricanes' highest ranking since
1960, when they made it as high as No. 8. Miami didn't even have
a basketball program from 1971 to '85 because its board of
trustees thought the sport was losing too much money. The
Hurricanes have never won an NCAA tournament game, and if that
streak is broken next month, Hamilton will probably mark the
occasion by checking his watch. "I've been on the ladder with
the scissors in my hand," he says, referring to his experience
as an assistant for Kentucky's 1978 national champions. "I think
this team has a chance to experience that, so this is not the
time to celebrate."

Such talk was hard to imagine five years ago, when the
Hurricanes went 0-18 in the Big East. That year Hamilton signed
his most important recruit, 6'7" forward Tim James, a gifted
athlete from Miami's Northwestern High, who, in addition to his
hoops exploits, won the Big East high jump championship as a
freshman and sophomore. He has spent the last four years writing
his very own Book of James, evolving from a back-to-the-basket
inside player as a freshman to a senior with a shooter's touch
out to 17 feet. James is third in the Big East in scoring (19.1
points a game) and had 16 points and seven rebounds in the win
over Connecticut. Last week Miami announced that it would retire
James's jersey, an honor the Hurricanes had previously bestowed
only on Rick Barry, whose number 24 was taken out of service in
1971.

James and 6'5" junior swingman Johnny Hemsley account for 56% of
Miami's scoring, but as the defeat of the Huskies demonstrated,
the Hurricanes have balance. Junior Mario Bland, an undersized
but sturdy center at 6'6" and 265 pounds, had 16 points and a
game-high 14 rebounds, which helped Miami dominate the boards
49-34. Vernon Jennings, a 6'4" junior who has become a
dependable point guard, dished out five assists. Thanks to a
rotation that goes nine deep, the Hurricanes were one of the few
UConn opponents who weren't worn out by game's end; if anything,
the Huskies were the ones panting. "It's taken a lot of time for
us to mature," Bland said afterward. "We see all the NCAA
banners Connecticut has, all the NBA players they've produced.
They have a lot of things we want to get."

After the Hurricanes had finished celebrating last Saturday,
Hamilton walked into the locker room to quickly address them.
(They had a plane to catch, after all.) It took him awhile to
make his way to the front of the room, however, because each
player stopped him to give him a hug. "He's come a long way,"
James said. "There weren't a lot of people in his corner a few
years ago. We just wanted to make sure he enjoyed this a little."

Texas Uprising
Big 12 Leaders Ride the Bubble

At Texas, watching videotape requires careful attention and,
occasionally, a box of Raisinets. Early this season first-year
coach Rick Barnes showed his players a battle scene from
Braveheart to teach them "the concept that there are things
worth dying for," as he puts it. Last month he rolled a clip
from City Slickers in which Jack Palance tells Billy Crystal
that each person has to choose "that one thing," the most
important thing in life, on his own. Wise guys might have
pointed out that Palance's character dies soon afterward ("We
didn't show that part," says Barnes), but the Longhorns bought
the message. "For now," says sophomore center Chris Mihm, "that
one thing is winning the Big 12 title."

When Texas had a 2-7 record--including losses to Houston, South
Florida and San Diego--on Dec. 19, such talk would have drawn
more laughs than City Slickers. But since then the Longhorns
have been hotter than burnt orange, having raised their record
through Sunday to 17-10 (12-2 in the Big 12) and clinched a tie
for the conference regular-season title with last Saturday's
63-54 win over Texas A&M. The key to the turnaround, according
to Barnes and the players, was a discussion they had after
losing 56-46 to Princeton in December's Rainbow Classic. "We
have more talent than they do," Barnes told his Longhorns, "but
they won because they have a plan and they believe in it. That's
what we need, a belief in what we're doing."

Translation: The Texas players needed to share Barnes's
obsession with having, in his words, "the best half-court
defense in America." Slowly, they've caught on. The Longhorns
had held opponents to 65.8 points a game (down from 81.4 last
season under former coach Tom Penders).

Not that Texas is all defense. Mihm, a 7-footer, has shed his
big-talent, big-wuss stigma and was averaging a double double
(13.1 points and 10.4 rebounds). Meanwhile, 6'5" senior forward
Kris Clack (14.7 points) has proved himself as both an outside
shooter and an explosive slasher.

But the Texas-sized surprise of the Longhorns' season has been
6'7", 250-pound junior forward Gabe Muoneke, Texas's leading
scorer (16.8 points a game), whose fearless inside play and
velvety outside touch--he was shooting 56.8% from three-point
range--have made him a candidate for Big 12 player of the year.
"Coach came up to me the third day he was here and said, 'Do you
want to be great?'" says Muoneke, who averaged just 10.4 points
last season. "It blew me away. He made me feel like I could play
basketball again."

Muoneke's only flaw has been his penchant for reenacting
Braveheart on the court. Barnes suspended him for a game last
month after Muoneke sucker-punched Kansas players three times in
the same game; Muoneke also sucker-punched a Wisconsin player in
a game in December. "Off the court I don't get into
confrontations with anybody," says Muoneke, a devout Catholic,
"but on the court I get so upset when my goals are being
jeopardized that I react. I need to worry about what I can
control and not pull any cheap shots."

Muoneke's outbursts have ceased since he began meeting with a
specialist last month to learn how to channel his emotions
better. He doesn't deny that he'll be excited if Texas can
rescue an NCAA bid from what once seemed a lost season, but he
knows that despite their 17 wins, the Longhorns aren't a shoo-in
for the tournament, not even after winning the regular-season
title in a major conference. "Oh, no, not yet," Muoneke says.
"We've got to keep winning. We can't control the committee, and
if there's anything I've learned this year, it's that you can't
worry about things that are out of your control." --Grant Wahl

Gonzaga
Excelling in Obscurity

Selection Sunday became Black Sunday last year for Gonzaga,
whose players sat sullenly in coach Dan Monson's basement in
Spokane watching their bubble burst. The Zags finished the
1997-98 regular season with a 23-9 record and a West Coast
Conference championship but lost to San Francisco in the league
tournament final. When the NCAA bids were issued, the Bulldogs
were victims of their too-low power rating of 74. At Gonzaga RPI
spelled RIP. "When you're a mid-major team way out in Spokane,
you're just numbers to the committee, so you don't get the
respect you may deserve," Monson says. "It makes you lose faith
in the system."

Gonzaga's only option was to try to boost its RPI by scheduling
more perilous road games for this season. Over the summer Monson
added visits to Kansas and TCU to a schedule that already
included games against Memphis, Purdue, Detroit and Washington,
all to counteract the weak conference schedule that Gonzaga
cannot escape. Harsh as the strategy was, it worked. Gonzaga's
RPI is 52, thanks in large part to wins over Memphis and
Washington.

Junior point guard Matt Santangelo knows all about the division
between the haves and have-nots. He had a scholarship offer from
Stanford in 1994, but the Cardinal's other point guard recruit
that year, Arthur Lee, beat him to it. Santangelo has found at
least one significant advantage, however, to ending up with the
Bulldogs: He has been tutored each preseason by Gonzaga alum
John Stockton in private workouts that have included shooting
drills and one-on-one duels. While Santangelo is a scoring point
guard who is sometimes shifted to off-guard to add offensive
punch, he has risen to second on Gonzaga's alltime assists list,
behind only his mentor.

Santangelo had guided Gonzaga to a 22-6 record at week's end,
and the Bulldogs should merit an NCAA bid regardless of the
outcome of the league tournament. But Gonzaga, which has been to
the NCAA tournament only once, under Monson's predecessor Dan
Fitzgerald in 1995, knows it can't rest easy. Whenever there is
a lull in practice, Monson invokes the memory of Sunday, March
8, 1998. "We haven't forgotten how glum we all felt that day,"
Santangelo says. "This season has been about a commitment we
made right then not to have to suffer through that anxiety
again." --Tim Crothers

Sun Belt Surprise
Arkansas State Assist Man

It's hard to find Chico Fletcher. He plays for little Arkansas
State in the overlooked Sun Belt Conference, and he stands just
5'5 1/2". His opponents tend to discover him the hard way. As
Fletcher was scoring 13 points and dishing out a school-record 17
assists at Texas Christian on Nov. 23, Horned Frogs coach Billy
Tubbs screeched at his point guard, Prince Fowler, "I don't care
what you do--trip him, kick him in the shins, do anything, just
get that little guy out of the game."

Three years ago Fletcher, an outstanding high school
quarterback, went to Arkansas State on a football scholarship,
but after redshirting his freshman season with a left shoulder
injury, he made the Indians' basketball team as a walk-on point
guard. He started the final 20 games of the 1996-97 season and
led the Sun Belt with an average of 6.3 assists. Fletcher, whose
first name derives from his mother's favorite 1970s sitcom,
Chico and the Man, quit football in '97. He then set an Arkansas
State record last basketball season with 240 assists and became
the first sophomore since '83 to win the Sun Belt player of the
year award. This season he averaged 16.5 points as he led the
Indians to a second-place finish in the conference, which is
scheduled to start its postseason tournament on Saturday. More
impressive, Fletcher led the nation in assists with 8.5 a game
through Sunday, reaffirming once and for all that Chico is the
Man. --T.C.

For the latest scores and recruiting news, plus Seth Davis's
College Hoops Mailbag, check out www.cnnsi.com.

COLOR PHOTO: BOB STOWELL Bland--who's anything but--had a game-high 14 rebounds as Miami drilled UConn on the glass. COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL DeJuan Vazquez and the other Longhorns are driving for the NCAAs.

WEEKLY SEED REPORT

There were no additions to or deletions from our seeds, but that
doesn't mean the week was uneventful. Our pollsters were in a
punitive mood, with many of them itching to send teams packing
after a loss. Connecticut's home court defeat at the hands of
Miami prompted all but one of our voters to shift the Huskies to
the West and let Auburn stay in its natural region, the South.
That, of course, set off a host of moves, since top-four-seeded
teams from the same conference can't be grouped in the same
region.

Our committee rewarded some good efforts too. (There were even
four votes for College of Charleston as a fourth seed, a pipe
dream that isn't going to come true on Selection Sunday.) Ohio
State rose to a No. 2, thanks to its impressive win over Indiana
in Bloomington, while Kentucky dropped a notch to a No. 3--and
even a notch lower on a number of ballots--after its road loss
to Arkansas. Miami stepped up to a three seed, its move coming
as Wisconsin, a loser to Michigan State, fell.

EAST
1. Duke (27-1)
2. St. John's (22-6)
3. Cincinnati (23-4)
4. Wisconsin (21-6)

SOUTH
1. Auburn (25-1)
2. Ohio State (21-6)
3. Miami (19-5)
4. UCLA (19-7)

MIDWEST
1. Michigan State (25-4)
2. Maryland (23-4)
3. Arizona (20-4)
4. Utah (22-4)

WEST
1. Connecticut (23-2)
2. Stanford (22-5)
3. Kentucky (21-7)
4. North Carolina (21-7)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)