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MAC Basketball Preview 2011-12: Miami RedHawks

Any preview of the upcoming Miami basketball season has to start with a discussion of Charlie Coles. The winningest coach in Miami and MAC history, beloved around the conference and around the country (but curiously reviled by a sizable chunk of his own fan base), Coles is a legend in Oxford: under his leadership, from 1997 to 2001, the RedHawks made five straight MAC title games; in 1999, of course, Miami made the Sweet Sixteen (plus appearances in 1997 and 2007, and NIT appearances in 2005 and 2006); and, to top it all off, he's just about the nicest guy you could possibly imagine, who's not only successful, but does it "the right way."

But it's been rough sailing for the RedHawks lately. Miami has often faced the toughest out-of-conference schedule in the MAC, and sometimes the entire country, playing insane guarantee game slates to bring in money for the rest of a cash-strapped athletic department. (Last year, for example, the RedHawks played Duke, Ohio State, Kansas, and San Diego State, though the last game was in an exempt tournament rather than for a guarantee.) That tough schedule hasn't paid dividends in MAC play, with Miami usually finishing 10-6 or so and coming in anywhere from second to fifth in the East, depending on tiebreakers.

During these past few choppy years, Charlie Coles has been working under his most recent contract extension. That extension expires at the end of this season. Coles is getting up there in years and has a pretty scary health history. But nothing about his future with Miami has been announced -- there hasn't even been a mention of discussion about next season, let alone any concrete plans. There are, however, some tea leaves to be read, and after the jump, I'll do just that. (As an added bonus, I'll also include actual basketball-related content!)

So here's my first prediction of this preview: 2011-12 will be Charlie Coles' last season at Miami. As I said, there hasn't been any open discussion of what's going on behind the scenes, but I think there are two pretty strong clues that's what will happen. First is the offseason hire of former Butler and Iowa head coach Todd Lickliter to replace Jimmy Lallathin, who moved to Kennesaw State. (For those of you keeping track at home, that makes Lickliter the #3 assistant; technically, he's junior to Jason Grunkemeyer.) This gives Miami two guys on the bench who can take over a program immediately: Lickliter and longtime Coles assistant Jermaine Henderson, who's been the associate head coach since 2005.

Second is the schedule. Although there are buy games at Ohio State and Vanderbilt, this isn't the usual murderer's row, and it's conceivable (though see below on whether this is likely) for Miami to make it through out-of-conference with a winning record; for once, the RedHawks might even hit the 20-win mark. But the real standout date here is a November 21 game at Division II Saginaw Valley State. You read that right -- Miami is playing away at a D-II school. But SVSU isn't just any old school. Charlie Coles was the longtime head coach of Saginaw High School, former Miami associate AD Mike Watson is the AD for the Cardinals, former Coles assistant Frankie Smith is their head coach, and -- this is a big one -- Charlie's son, Chris, is an assistant on Smith's staff. This game screams farewell tour. I expect that sometime in March (though here's hoping it's sometime in April!), we'll have a press conference announcing a coaching change, and that Charlie Coles will finally step aside from a job and a university he loves with all his heart.

Anyway, on to basketball!

The Roster. The big story here is that, at this moment, Miami only has 7 of its 13 scholarship players available. Vince Legarza, Bill Edwards (eligible this year after sitting out last season as a transfer from Penn State), Allen Roberts, and Quinten Rollins are all injured, while Orlando Williams is suspended indefinitely, and St. Francis (PA) transfer Will Felder will be eligible next season. Edwards and Legarza are expected to be available relatively soon, though maybe not in time for the opener against Dayton. Over on Miami Hawk Talk, meanwhile, there's speculation that Williams' indefinite suspension is really his removal from the team, and that he'll never wear the red and white again.

Fortunately, first-team All-MAC big man Julian Mavunga returns to do his best impression of Dirk Nowitzki. (Miami fans have long been puzzled about why Mavunga insists on playing out by the three-point line, but then he did lead the RedHawks in scoring and rebounding last year.) For Miami to succeed, Mavunga will need help from a healthy Edwards and from 6' 8" sophomore Jon Harris, who put in quality time off the bench last year. Also expected to step up this year is swingman Josh Sewell, who showed flashes of brilliance last year, but, according to Coles, needs to work on his control. And, with Rollins and Roberts injured and Williams possibly gone for good, two freshman guards -- Brian Sullivan and Will Sullivan, who aren't related, will have to step up big at the guard positions. Brian looked solid at the point in a squeaker exhibition win against California (PA), but the season will definitely be a trial by fire for him.

The Schedule. The season begins next Tuesday at Millett, where Miami takes on Dayton in the first Mythical Miami Valley League matchup of the season. The RedHawks get Xavier and Cincinnati on the road, and Wright State at home. (Side note: outside of the Big Five in Philadelphia, how many schools have at least four out-of-conference games set in stone each year?) Miami is likely to go 1-3 over those games, with the lone win coming against Wright State, but never underestimate the ability of a Charlie Coles team to beat Xavier when they shouldn't. In addition to the aforementioned Saginaw Valley State game, the RedHawks get Troy and Southeast Missouri on the road, Belmont and Evansville at home, Ohio State on the road, William & Mary at home, Vanderbilt on the road, and a home BracketBuster date. If the RedHawks are healthy, I think 6-6 is doable, and 7-5 at least possible. (Not making any BracketBuster guesses without an opponent.)

Conference-wise, the RedHawks seem to have drawn the short straw in crossover games, getting Eastern Michigan and Toledo at home, but having to play Western Michigan and Ball State on the road. That said, you can usually count on Charlie to get to ten wins in MAC play, and even last year's 16-17 squad went 11-5 in conference.

The Bottom Line. Unfortunately, unless Doug Penno walks through that door to hit another bank shot, I don't think Miami is going dancing this year. The RedHawks will finish the regular season something like 17-12, make it to the semis of the MAC tournament (because it seems like that always happens), and bow out in an ugly game (because it seems like that always happens too).  Next season, Coach Henderson or Coach Lickliter will be patrolling the sidelines for the Red and White, and everyone -- especially me -- will miss Professor Hoops.