As they travel through Spain this week, from Madrid to Valencia to Barcelona, it isn’t the game results that are of utmost importance to the University of Miami men’s basketball team — although a 2-0 record to start the exhibition tour is certainly encouraging.
More significant is the team bonding over plates of paella and chorizo. With only three players back from last season’s active roster, the trip’s main purpose was for teammates to get to know each other.
UM coach Jim Larrañaga handed out world maps and had players find and discuss each other’s countries and cities of origin. Players are rooming with teammates they don’t know.
It is this type of unity that Sheldon McClellan was seeking when he left the University of Texas in 2013, and he is having the time of his life so far with the Canes. He scored 24 points and had five steals against Albacete Baloncesto over the weekend, and leads UM with a 20.5 points-per-game average over the two games.
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McClellan, a 6-5 redshirt junior, was already thinking of transferring in March 2013, when he showed up at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin to watch a few NCAA Tournament games. As soon as he saw the Hurricanes play live for the first time, he knew where he wanted to go.
“I liked the plays they ran, the open-court stuff, and the way they all seemed to be playing for each other,” McClellan said. “They seemed to be having fun, and the coaches seemed positive on the bench. I wish I had come here as a freshman.”
The team’s demeanor was particularly appealing because despite being the Longhorns’ leading scorer that season with 13.5 points per game, he was in and out of coach Rick Barnes’ doghouse. The coach felt the guard wasn’t playing to his potential and publicly criticized McClellan.
McClellan contacted then-UM point guard Shane Larkin through Twitter and asked him to put in a good word with the Hurricanes coaching staff. He did, McClellan visited and committed.
“The whole chemistry was off at Texas, and it felt like I wasn’t being treated right,” McClellan said. “At UM, everything is positive, never any negative energy. Coach L is like a father on the court. I love him to death. I like how positive he is … whether after a bad shot or reminding us to move on to the next play. That’s how I liked to be pushed, not by negative reinforcement.”
McClellan spent last season on the bench per transfer rules, along with point guard Angel Rodriguez, a Miami Krop High grad who transferred from Kansas State. Rodriguez is also enjoying basketball again but for different reasons.
Rodriguez, a native of Puerto Rico, felt too far away from home and Latin culture in Manhattan, Kansas. He made All Big-12 second team as a sophomore, was an all-league defender and was one of Florida’s top recruits coming out of high school. He is a gym rat known for his leadership and vows to be the vocal leader the team lacked last season.
“Best decision I ever made in my life,” Rodriguez said of coming to UM. “Close to my family, one flight for them to come see me. I see my friends. I have a life outside of basketball, so my mind is not just stuck in basketball. I get my time to relax. I mean, I’m from Puerto Rico. I get to go to the beach, feel like I’m at home. It motivates me to be closer to my family, make them proud.”
At a practice on campus last week, spectators included Rodriguez’s high school coach, Shakey Rodriguez (no relation), the coach’s son, Rodriguez’s girlfriend, his best friend from Puerto Rico and two other friends.
He has battled wrist and knee injuries over the years, and was feeling healthy again, but a lower leg injury has him on the bench in Spain. A team spokesperson said there is “no timetable” for his return.
Larrañaga said Rodriguez and Larkin have “entirely different” personalities, but both are great leaders.
“Shane was a very quiet leader, would talk to guys individually,” Larrañaga said. “Angel is much more of a floor general, barking out directions, getting on guys to make sure they are doing their job. You can’t ask Shane to be a vocal leader, can’t ask Angel to keep his mouth shut.”