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RedHawks look to start 2020-21 strong following March momentum

<p>Without Nike Sibande, Dalonte Brown (pictured) will be counted on as a senior leader this season.</p>

Without Nike Sibande, Dalonte Brown (pictured) will be counted on as a senior leader this season.

The end of the 2019-20 men’s basketball season was a rollercoaster for the Miami RedHawks. After a dismal start to the new year in which the team went 3-14 before netting back-to-back conference wins, there was little optimism or expectation heading into the Mid-American Conference (MAC) tournament. 

Yet despite entering the tournament as the 12th seed and having all of the odds stacked against them, Miami prevailed behind a career-high 31 points from guard Nike Sibande and knocked off fifth seed Buffalo 85-79.

Suddenly, the momentum was playing into the RedHawks' favor, and there was a sense of optimism heading into a second-round matchup against Northern Illinois. 

“Well, first of all, we just thought we were playing our best basketball,” head coach Jack Owens said. “The things we were doing to help us win those games are what we want to carry over to this year.”

The rollercoaster came to a screeching halt soon after.

On March 12, the same day Miami was scheduled to face the NIU Huskies, the NCAA dropped a bombshell announcement that its championship tournament had been postponed. Every major conference in America, including the MAC, followed suit by ending their conference tournaments and, in turn, the RedHawks’ season. 

Sure, it’s unlikely that Miami would continue to upset every conference opponent and enter the NCAA Tournament, but who knows? Stranger things have happened.

This would not be the last bad news Miami would receive during the sports hiatus, as its star player announced he would not be returning to the RedHawks for the 2020 season. Sibande, who had averaged 14 points a night as the first scoring option, decided to transfer to the University of Pittsburgh to further his basketball career, leaving a gaping hole in Owens’ rotation.

So how will this team, already down a key player, respond this year after a season that saw them finish well under .500? Well, that will come down to how the former understudies to Sibande handle their new roles, as well as relying on several key upperclassmen and a talented crop of freshmen. 

Owens remains optimistic.

“With the guys on the roster, I feel good about the direction this team is going,” he said. 

This is a critical year for Owens and his players. In his three years as head coach in Oxford, the RedHawks have gone 41-50, never finishing higher than third in the MAC East, and have just one postseason invite to their name. Owens has just one season left on his contract.

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The RedHawks do have some experienced talent at their disposal this year, as their returning core is highlighted by senior forward Dalonte Brown, as well as talented juniors, guard Isaiah Coleman-Lands and forward Elijah McNamara (the latter was named the TMS Most Improved Player last season). These three, along with role players such as guard Mekhi Lairy and forward Precious Ayah must all grow into their roles in order for the RedHawks to play at their highest level. 

“We’re older, we have guys going into their third and fourth years, so we’re aiming to be a more consistent team this year,” Owens said. "This is a team that is going to play the brand of basketball that we want — in regards to playing hard, playing together and playing smart.”

The depth behind these players is incredibly young but carries heaps of potential. The underclassmen are highlighted by guard Dae Dae Grant, who made the All-MAC freshman team with nine points per game on 36% shooting, and Javin Etzler, the best shooter on the team, says Owens. 

The underclassmen have the potential to contribute in a major way for Owens this season. The incoming freshman core features a 2,000+ point high school scorer (forward Luka Eller) and a member of the Ohio All-State First Team (guard Bryson Tatum). Owens also added 6-foot 11 center Jackson Ames to give his team some height and presence in the paint.

Make no mistake, the MAC is no cakewalk of a conference, especially in Miami’s division. Akron, Bowling Green and Buffalo all posted 20+ win seasons and defeated Miami in five of the six meetings between them (Bowling Green fell to the RedHawks on Feb. 29.) The task looms large for the Redhawks in this extraordinary season, but if the team can build off the late burst of success from last season and add some consistency, a special season may be in the cards at Millett Hall.