CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Going to Miami two days after Hurricane Wilma blew through and knocked out power all over Dade and Broward counties probably wasn't the smartest thing to do.
But seeing the confidence, swagger and overall exuberance of Miami's basketball team in person amid the major inconveniences for players and staff (only a few had power late last week after Wilma hit on Monday) made the trip worth the effort.
Miami was one of the nation's surprise teams for three-quarters of last season, running its record to 15-7 overall, 6-5 in the ACC, before falling flat and losing six of its last seven, including a first-round NIT loss at South Carolina.
There is a genuine feeling, though, that this season's squad will get to the NCAA Tournament.
"If we don't make the tournament, then we didn't have a good season," junior forward Anthony King said. "We plan on making the tournament."
Miami boasts arguably the most potent trio of returning guards in the ACC: junior Guillermo Diaz (18.6 ppg), senior Robert Hite (17.3 ppg) and junior Anthony Harris (12.4 ppg). Diaz may not have the national reputation of some of his peers, but the Miami sports information department is happy to point out that his per-game averages stack up very well against elite, nationally known guards like Duke's J.J. Redick, Syracuse's Gerry McNamara, Iowa State's Curtis Stinson, Wake Forest's Justin Gray and Louisville's Taquan Dean.
You get the picture that this squad has the goods in the backcourt. If this team is to make itself into an NCAA Tournament team in coach Frank Haith's second season, as King suggests, the real barometer will be King himself.
To a player, the one name the Hurricanes mention as the difference on this season's squad is King, an All-ACC Defensive Team selection last season after starting 29 games as a sophomore. The 6-9 power forward produced Miami's first-ever triple double (11 points, 10 rebounds and 13 blocks) against Florida Atlantic on Nov. 29, 2004. He finished the season averaging a modest 6.3 points, but also averaged 8.0 rebounds and had 86 blocks on a team that became admittedly predictable and worn-down by late February as the guards tried to dominate the offensive production.
"I've seen him working down there [in the gym] and he's so much more confident, and that will open up the court for me," Diaz said of King.
"He's a great shot-blocker, and he's gotten so much better -- adding 20 pounds -- and he's an offensive presence," Hite said. "Every time he gets the ball, it's a bucket or a free throw. We'll definitely get him the ball."
"He's working so hard on his game, making outside shots, playing with more confidence," Harris said. "His post moves have gotten so much better. He doesn't settle for jump shots. He's got a presence, so we will get him more involved."
King's confidence is something to behold. This is the same player Haith had to challenge in the first week last season after he was willing to give up his starting spot.
That would not occur this season.
"He wasn't a confident player when I got here," Haith said. "The first game out of the box, he had 19 rebounds. We had suspended [senior forward] Will Frisby for the first game [last season]. So when I came to practice the next day, Anthony had already put on the white jersey as if he was just going to give in to Will as the starter."
Haith went after King right away.
"I challenged him and said, 'Are you kidding me? You're just going to give it back to him? You had a great game, you have to be more tough.' He was lacking that confidence in his game," Haith said.
King had reason to be passive. He went through an incredibly tough spell nearly three years ago when his older brother, James, died of a heart attack on the basketball court on Nov. 27, 2002.
"I know his love for the game wasn't as strong when he came here, but you could see the kid getting better right before your eyes as the year went on," Haith said. "He just needed court time and confidence in his ability."
King said that, before he arrived at Miami, "I didn't know if I wanted to play" (due to his brother's death). "But I love it now and I did love it before," King said. "I can't wait until the season starts."
King spent the summer getting DVDs on as many NBA power forwards as possible. He studied their post moves, drop steps, jump hooks and their defensive positioning.
"I worked on Kevin Garnett's high-release jump shot, and it's working," King said.
The guards must stay confident in feeding King in the post, something they say they are at this juncture. But Haith said King must demand the ball even more.
Haith and his diverse staff of Jorge Fernandez (Haith said his big plus is his knowledge of the area and his being bilingual), Michael Hunt (a former head coach at Towson) and Billy Kennedy (former head coach at SE Louisiana) hauled in even more guards -- Denis Clemente and Siena transfer Jack McClinton. Clemente will get minutes this season off the bench. His quickness defensively and his speed with the ball in his hands should give Harris a break. As a transfer, McClinton must sit out games this season but pushes the main three in practice. Having McClinton around helps alleviate fatigue in practice for the others.
King will get tested early and often with the Canes likely playing Washington in Seattle in the finals of the BCA Classic on Nov. 15, then going to Temple and Michigan later in the month, and also playing Florida at home and then Louisville in Fort Lauderdale on New Year's Eve. That's just nonconference. In ACC play, King will face Duke's Shelden Williams, Wake Forest's Eric Williams and Boston College's Craig Smith. King will need to get to these post stars early and not let them "establish position by getting a hand up [to call for the ball] in the passing lane."
As much improvement as King is showing on the court (Haith said King's improvement has coincided with the team's), King is also providing comfort off it. Harris bunked at King's house last week since he had power and Harris didn't yet.
Hurricane Wilma brought this squad even closer last week, but the vibe was already tight. Getting King to be more demonstrative offensively is the difference between expecting to be in the postseason (NIT) and earning an NCAA bid.
"Playing in the NCAA Tournament is an attainable goal for this team," Haith said. "But they can't fall into the assumption that we're assuming we're good enough with four returning starters in a league that supposedly isn't as good. If we've got expectations, that means we're getting better. The interest in Miami down here is healthy, so we've got to take advantage of that."
They should. They've weathered a few storms, and now they're even more prepared for the next big one -- a challenging nonconference slate and, as always, the grueling ACC.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.