Monday, March 15, 1999

Call 'em Miami of O-hi-we're in the Sweet 16'




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        NEW ORLEANS — Appearances can be deceiving. Matchups can be misread. Probabilities are best projected in pencil because even the experts need erasers now and then.

        Case in point: the Miami RedHawks.

        The bracket-busting basketball team from Oxford, Ohio continued its startling run through the NCAA Tournament Sunday afternoon, blindsiding Utah, 66-58.

        Up next, Kentucky. Who would have thunk it?

        There was no way to see this coming. Not with a magnifying glass. Not with a microscope. Utah had won 23 in a row, was fresh from a Final Four season, and was too smart, too savvy and had too many human skyscrapers to let Miami's Wally Szczerbiak out of its sight. The odds seemed so overwhelming, even among Miami's core constituencies, that coach Charlie Coles received almost as many condolences as congratulations before Sunday's tipoff.

        “After we beat Washington (Friday), people said, "You're going to have a tough time with Utah,'” Coles recalled. “They said, "If it doesn't work out, you've had a great year.' I thought everybody misread us af ter that first (tournament) game.”

        Miami's upset of Washington suggested that Szczerbiak was a terrific one-man team. Sunday's showing revealed the RedHawks own other offensive weapons, and several other attributes. This is not your typical Mid-American Conference team, too frail to fight with big-time bullies. The RedHawks are not intimidated by size or shadows. They advance to the Sweet 16 on merit, not magic.

        “Human nature is to see a big guy and think he's the next Shaquille O'Neal,” Miami guard Damon Frierson said. “But we thought we were physically stronger than (Utah). It doesn't matter what the school is, it's the player that makes the difference.”

        Basketball is only a little bit about altitude. It is a lot more about attitude and quickness and instinct and intelligence. Utah came out of its dressing room like a squad of Sequoias 6-11, 6-10, 6-7 up front; 6-10, 6-9 off the bench. But like most trees, the Running Utes don't move so well.

        With the notable exception of guard Andre Miller, handicapped Sunday by an injured hand, the Utes were too slow to turn up the pressure on Miami defensively, and too sluggish to beat the RedHawks to the loose balls.

        They seized a 24-13 lead by exploiting their superior size and denying Miami second shots early in the game, but they could not hold it. Once Coles inserted Jason Stewart in his lineup with 7:38 to play in the first half, he exposed the flaw in Utah coach Rick Majerus' formula. Majerus had no one swift enough to stay with Stewart on the perimeter.

        “I put him in because (Jason) Grunkemeyer wasn't getting his shot off,” Coles explained. “Grunk's certainly a better pure shooter, but at that stage, I was going to do down the line. When he hit the first one, I said "Oh-oh, there we go.' ”

        Stewart would hit three three-point shots in a span of 90 seconds, personally turning a potential blowout into a real ballgame. Suddenly, when the RedHawks looked at each other, they realized they had nothing to fear.

        “We were a little down, looking for an answer,” Szczerbiak said. “And then along comes Jason Stewart — probably the hardest-headed guy in America — and he hits three straight threes. We saw that if we got up on those guys and pressured and bodied them, they didn't like that too much.”

        Utah is not accustomed to so much give and take. In their previous 32 games, the Utes had outrebounded their opponents 28 times. But Miami played Utah even on the boards, 27-27, aking up in bulk and positioning what it lacks in height. Once the RedHawks established position inside, they were mighty hard to move.

        “Szczerbiak benches 370 (pounds),” Coles said. “And if you look at him, that guy's put together pretty well. (Forward) John Estick weighs 243. We're not tall, but we're strong. We felt the physical part of it would be to our advantage.”

        Miami gets to play Kentucky next Friday in St. Louis. The odds, again, will be overwhelming. Whatever that's worth.

        “It doesn't cost anything to dream,” Frierson said.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

MARCH MADNESS PAGE