Wednesday, March 19, 2003

Coles' humor intact despite struggles

Frustrating world for Miami coach since Szczerbiak left

By Mark Schmetzer
Enquirer contributor

Charlie Coles has to go only as far as his mailbox to see how some Miami fans feel about the job he is doing as RedHawks basketball coach.

"I got a letter from one woman who's a friend with the family of one of the players," Coles said. "She didn't think I was playing the guy enough. She said, `You haven't done anything since Wally (Szczerbiak) left.'

"You know what? She's correct. You know what? Pat Riley hasn't done anything since (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) left. It's a struggle."

Coles, who just finished his seventh season as coach at his alma mater, agrees with assessments that the 2002-03 season could have been better. Miami was in position to win its first Mid-American Conference East Division championship since the 1998-99 season, Szczerbiak's senior year, before losing its last three games of the regular season. The RedHawks went on to lose to Ohio in overtime in the quarterfinals of the MAC Tournament to finish with a 13-15 overall record., including an 11-7 conference regular-season record that was good for second place in the East. It was Miami's highest since winning that championship.

The RedHawks are 58-64 overall and 38-34 in the MAC since Szczerbiak led Miami on its run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament four years ago. Fans such as Coles' correspondent are frustrated that the program hasn't been able to better capitalize on the spotlight that accompanied that success. Coles counters that it's business as usual in the MAC.

"That's never happened in our league," Coles said. "When would that happen in a mid-major? Wally was not the first guy to come through here. We had Ron Harper here (for three consecutive NCAA appearances in the mid-1980s). Who are we going to get? Are we going to beat Cincinnati for a guy? Kent has come as close to dominating as anybody could, and they've won (only) one league championship and two tournament championships. Ball State dominated in the late '80s and early '90s, and they won two championships.

"I would love to have built on that. Whoever says that needs to wake up. I recruited harder after Wally than I ever have. It's a struggle, because it's a struggle for everyone."

Coles has never felt more frustrated about a season than he does about the one just completed, because the RedHawks bounced back from being 4-9 to get themselves into contention for the MAC East championship.

"In 38 years of coaching, this is the worst that I've ever felt," Coles said. "We were so close, yet so far away. Losing four straight at the end hurt, but I thought we had some nice highlights. Actually, I didn't think that we'd be as close as we were."

Miami's schedule included seven teams that made the NCAA Tournament, and the RedHawks beat two of them, Dayton and Central Michigan

Improvement seems probable, especially because Bryan Reed, who averaged just 24 points and 1.9 rebounds a game, is the only starter among the three players who have exhausted their eligibility. Senior Larry Drake, who was academically ineligible as a freshman, still was trying to decide whether to pursue another year of eligibility.

Coles is committed to running the New Jersey Nets' version of the famed Princeton offense he installed this season, but he also realizes that the RedHawks must find a way to attack the zone defenses thrown at them by opponents at the end of the season.

Miami's shooting, which was second-worst in the league, also must improve. Coles is hoping incoming freshmen such as guard Tyler Jones (Grant County), who scored 44 points in a high school tournament game, can take some of the load off returnees Juby Johnson, the leading RedHawk scorer, and Josh Hausfeld, Miami's most accurate 3-point shooter.

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