Tuesday, March 16, 1999

Miami's 16 ingredients for sweet season


Szczerbiak isn't the only reason

BY JOHN FAY
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Sixteen reasons why Miami University is in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament:

        1. Wally Szczerbiak. You don't have to be John Wooden to know this. But as good as everyone around here thought Szczerbiak was, he's been better in the tournament. Heck, he's been the best player in the Big Dance. Period.

        And Kentucky insiders are fretting figuring out how to match up with Szczerbiak on Friday when Miami takes on defending national champion UK in the Midwest Regional semifinals at St.Louis. (Tipoff is 10:15 p.m., Channel 12).

        2. Two losses in their last three regular-season games. What, you ask? Those losses probably cost Miami a seed or two. That dropped the RedHawks to a 10, rather than an eight or a nine. As an eight or a nine, MU would have played the No.1 in the second round. Miami may have been overmatched with Michigan State, but the RedHawks could handle Utah.

        3. Continuity. Charlie Coles was promoted when Herb Sendek left. There's no telling what might have happened had an outsider come in. Under Coles, a father figure type, Miami made the NCAA in 1997. That gave the core of the seniors, around which this year's team is built, a taste of the NCAA. That experience was invaluable in New Orleans.

        4. Damon Frierson. Another obvious one. Like Szczerbiak, he's a senior, with exceptional talent for a mid-major school. But he's more than that. He's a guy who's willing to leave the limelight to Wally World and play unselfishly, never forcing shots. “He's one of the best players in America in the last two minutes of a game,” Coles said. Frierson makes free throws and great decisions with the ball when the game is on the line.

        5. Transfers. The two Jasons, Jason Grunkemeyer and Jason Stewart, give Miami an offensive alternative on the wing when teams double Szczerbiak. Miami didn't have that last year. Stewart is a transfer from Furman; Grunkemeyer from Ohio U. They didn't play last year, but the they practiced with the team. So they seamlessly moved into the rotation this year.

        6. The MAC was tough. The Mid-American Conference was unusually strong this year. That meant Miami wasn't taking a huge leap in competition from league play to the NCAA.

        7. A good point. Rob Mestas is an excellent point guard, a requirement for succeeding in the tournament. He's only 5-foot-11, but his quickness makes him a pesky defender, and his assist-to-turnover ratio is 10-to-2 in the tournament.

        8. The “juco.”John Estick, a junior-college transfer, gives Miami an inside scoring presence. Estick has been in double figures in five of Miami's last six games. “John's a versatile post guy,” Szczerbiak said. “Those shots he makes are touch shots. They're not easy shots.”

        9. The role players. Mike Ensminger, the shaven-headed, dean's list-making, screen-setting enforcer, typifies the role players on the Miami team. Ensminger was a big scorer at Oak Hills. Now he takes a shot once a month, sets a half-dozen screens every possession and is the happiest guy on the team.

        10. High basketball IQ. The pick-and-roll play that killed Utah was something on the back shelf of Miami's of fense. Coles simply decided to use it and worked on it 10 minutes in practice the day before the game. But Frierson and Szczerbiak don't have to be told things twice. Sometimes not even once. When Washington went to a zone in the first round, Szczerbiak and Frierson told the other players where to be and solved it on the fly.

        11. Herb's class. The class that Herb Sendek recruited four years ago — Szczerbiak, Frierson, Mestas and Anthony Taylor — was tremendous. You've got two of the top four players in Miami history and two other starters. “I give all the credit to Herb,” Coles said. “He's a great talent scout.”

        12. Coles and Co. can coach. Assistant James Whitford had a flawless plan to take Washington's 7-footer, Todd MacCulloch, out of the game in the first round. In the second round, word courtside was that Coles had outcoached Rick Majerus, one of the best in the business.

        13. Senior seasoning. Miami has four players who have played together for four years. Losing players to the NBA has hampered the national powers and made the NCAA Tournament much more balanced.

        14. Defense. If Miami gets a lead, watch out. The RedHawks can force a team to work 25, 30 seconds for every shot. Mestas, Frierson and Taylor are great perimeter defenders, so it's hard for opposing guards to get their team into their offense. Opponents shoot only 41.8 percent against the RedHawks.

        15. No turnovers. Miami has committed a total of 11 turnovers in its two tournament games. The starting guards — Mestas and Frierson — have committed three in those two games. “When you have Wally Szczerbiak, why would you want to turn it over?” Coles said. Miami is 23-1 when it has fewer turnovers than the other team.

        16. Pumping iron. Miami is an exceptionally strong team. That makes up for a lack of height. Eleven of the 12 players bench-press more than 300 pounds. The inside guys are all well over that: Szczerbiak 370, Estick 365 and Ensminger 325.

       



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