Posted: 11:00 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013
Last year was one of transition for Miami basketball. 2012 saw the retirement of Charlie Coles and hiring of John Cooper, the Tennessee State coach known for his uptempo offense and upset of Murray State. And the 2012-13 season was no walk in the park: Coach Cooper's new system definitely took some getting used to, and while some players showed considerable promise with the different schemes, others didn't fit in well. The offseason has been full of tumult as well, with heavy roster turnover, and, sadly, the all-too-soon death of coach Coles, a man beloved by Miamians, MAC fans, and, perhaps most of all -- and confusingly to Miami fans who thought he'd overstayed his welcome -- his fellow coaches. Dan Dakich, for example, tweeted that Coles was one of the top three coaches he'd ever gone up against, and we're talking about a guy who's been on the court with Tom Izzo and Roy Williams, among others.
But the past is the past, and the RedHawks will soon open their second season under John Cooper. So what does the coming year have in store?
Last Season's Results
Miami started the season reasonably well. There were the usual Murderer's Row beatdowns from NC State and Louisville (and keep in mind, the schedule got easier because Cooper refused to let men's basketball be used to massively fund the athletic department through guarantees to the same scale Coles was forced to accept), but encouraging signs in three wins against a truly awful Grambling team followed by James Madison and William & Mary. Still, growing pains were evident in a complete blowout loss at Evansville, followed by losses to local rivals Dayton and Wright State. January saw the season's absolute nadir: a home loss to Northern Illinois, Miami's first loss to the Huskies in Oxford since 1981. To be sure, there were a few bright spots -- an away victory at Buffalo, a convincing win at Bowling Green in the first round of the MAC tournament -- but this was very much a season filled with players struggling to adapt to a new coach, a new style of play, and a new team identity.
The easier question might be "who's not"? Miami loses Vince Legarza, Drew McGhee, and Allen Roberts to graduation (although McGhee and Roberts have eligibility left, and will play at Kennesaw State and Penn State, respectively), Jon Harris to Cleveland State, Jared Tadlock to Division II Fort Hays State, and Josh Sewell to simply not wanting to play basketball any more (athough Miami will honor his scholarship, and he'll stay in Oxford). The RedHawks averaged 63 points a game last season, and 30 of that is out the door. Roberts was the team's leading scorer last season, coming in just over 12 points per game, but the circumstances of his departure lend credence to rumors that he was a locker-room cancer, meaning his departure may not hurt as much on the court as it does on paper.
Key returnees include the team's second-leading scorer and top rebounder, Will Felder, as well as guards Geovonie McKnight, Reggie Johnson, and Quinten Rollins. The big x-factor returnee is Bill Edwards, who missed most of 2011-12 with an injury, only to be lost for the season just five games into 2012-13. When he's healthy, Edwards is an exceptionally solid MAC forward. If he can manage to string together a full season, a Miami front court built mostly out of chewing gum and string may yet be impressive.
Never let it be said that John Cooper didn't get to shape the roster ASAP. Taking advantage of all those departures, Cooper brought in a whopping five new scholarship players, four of whom are available this season, and last season's transfer sit-out is now eligible. Headlining the newcomers, at least from a national press perspective, is Blake McLimans, who joins from last year's national runner-up Michigan squad after graduating in the spring. McLimans, a backup center/power forward with the Wolverines, is expected to provide veteran leadership to a team that desperately needs it, even if he doesn't turn out to be all-MAC on the floor. Something like a Mike Ensminger role, for those of you who go back that far.
Also expected to make an immediate splash is Oregon transfer Willie Moore, a point guard who was cleared to play after transferring to Miami for family reasons (he's from Cincinnati). Moore played in 26 games for Oregon last season, and though he averaged only two points a game, he was a valued role player at the point whose minutes were expected to increase as he became an upperclassman. Moore was one of the first players Cooper made a hard recruiting push for when he came to Oxford, and it's good to see those connections pay off nicely here.
Another transfer eligible this year is John Hawkins, a seven-footer who sat out last season after transferring from Palm Beach Atlantic. Miami hasn't had a man his size since the days of Nate VanderSluis, and actual real-life centers (as opposed to 6'9" power forwards working their butts off out of position) are rare in the MAC.
And then there are the Aussies: Joshua Oswald and Jaryd Eustace, a pair of 6'7" freshmen from the Land Down Under. (In case you are one of those people who think of Australia as some remote place where everything is close to everything else, Eustace hails from Brisbane and Oswald from Melbourne. They're roughly the same distance apart as Los Angeles and Seattle.) Despite both being a traditional forward height, Eustace is thought to be a natural point guard, and may be able to provide valuable backup minutes to Moore and Miami's other backcourt members. Oswald, on the other hand, projects as a forward, and should have the running ability to be a key player in Cooper's uptempo system.
Finally, although he's not eligible this year, point guard Eric Washington of Presbyterian College has transferred to Miami. He's a guy to keep an eye on for the future.
As the raft of newcomers shows, Cooper has proven that he can recruit, and that he and his staff are able to find talent all over the world. (And close to home as well -- Zack McCormick, one of Ohio's top guards in the class of 2014, recently committed to Miami.) The question is whether all this talent can translate into results on the court. It certainly seems that those players who stuck around wholly buy into the new program, and with a year of experience, things should be looking up. Cooper's time at Tennessee State bears this out: it took three years to turn the program around, but there were definite, concrete signs of improvement in year two.
Games to Watch
As far as the out-of-conference schedule goes, Miami's home date with Wright State should be a key barometer of where the program stands right now. The Raiders have had the better of the RedHawks for several years now, and last season was no different. This is an important early-season measure for Miami.
With respect to the MAC season, two games jump out immediately from the schedule. First, if Miami wants to be among the best in the conference, then an early January game at Akron will show whether they're ready for prime time. And the February 4 game against Northern Illinois is probably already circled on the calendar for sweet revenge. Apart from those dates, a three-game homestand in late February (the longest such stretch of the season) against Kent State, Bowling Green, and Akron will probably be crucial for the RedHawks' MAC tournament seeding.
The Bottom Line
I don't like to make predictions. I am notoriously bad at predictions. (Although the night after the Miami-CMU football game, I had a dream that Don Treadwell would be fired, so there's that.) Here's what I'm willing to say, though: I think Miami will show marked improvement from last season, but finish in that vast soup of middle-of-the-MAC teams who are all within a game or two of each other and see everything decided by tiebreakers. I expect next season to be the RedHawks' true breakout year under John Cooper.