Much of the talk among University of Miami men’s basketball fans this preseason centered on transfers Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan. The duo is eligible to play after a year on the bench, and that is certainly the most obvious storyline heading into Friday’s home season opener against Howard.
Rodriguez, a native of Puerto Rico and a Miami Krop High grad, is thrilled to be home from Kansas State and couldn’t wait to get back on the court. He made second-team All-Big 12 as a sophomore point guard at K-State, but was homesick for Miami weather and Latin culture.
McClellan, a high-octane 6-5 guard, was unhappy at the University of Texas, and fell in love with the Canes after watching them play in Austin during their Sweet 16 run in 2013. He contacted former UM star Shane Larkin on Twitter, got the transfer ball rolling, and is so happy with Miami he says, “I should have come here as a freshman.”
The two players bonded on the bench last season.
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“We’ve both been two years in college, so we know what it takes to win,” McClellan said. “Just sitting there in suits, watching the losses, and the almost-wins, when we felt we could have made a difference, that was really tough. We talked about what we could do next year. We know every guy on the other teams. I don’t know if they know us, but we know them and what they do.”
There is no question McClellan and Rodriguez will share a huge load of responsibility. In an exhibition win against Eckerd College last week, McClellan was 7 of 10 for 24 points. Rodriguez had 11 points, six assists and five steals.
But there is a lesser-known newcomer, a guy with a plain name and an unflashy résumé, whom coach Jim Larrañaga predicts could be the Hurricanes’ “secret weapon.” His name is Joe Thomas. He is a Miami native. And he is a 23-year-old grad student.
Thomas was Rodriguez’s teammate at Krop, where he averaged 12 points, 10 rebounds and four assists as a senior. He was not highly-recruited, so he wound up at Niagara University in New York. He redshirted as a freshman, played three seasons, and he had an additional year of eligibility remaining when he graduated last May with a Criminal Justice degree.
He averaged 3.1 points and 2.9 rebounds during his Niagara career, and wasn’t sure whether he should pursue another season. He knew he didn’t want to stay at Niagara, so he came home and began exploring options. He called Rodriguez and asked if UM had open gym sessions because he wanted to stay in shape. Not only did UM have open gym, it had one open scholarship left. Rodriguez urged Thomas to try out. He showed up, and coaches were so impressed they gave him the scholarship.
“My assistants are great recruiters, but not a single one of them had ever heard of Joe Thomas,” Larrañaga said. “It was Angel Rodriguez who brought him to our attention. It was almost a decision based on convenience for both of us. It’s great for us to have a local kid on our team and great opportunity for him to play in the ACC for a year, in Miami, his home town. He will play a big role, maybe be our secret weapon.”
Thomas, who is 6-7 and 245 pounds, is the strongest player on the team with a 370-pound bench press. With 6-10 forward Ivan Cruz Uceda suspended until January for an eligibility violation, Thomas, freshman Omar Sherman and 7-0 center Tonye Jekiri will get the bulk of the work inside.
“Maybe people who don’t know about the game won’t appreciate what he does, but I do because he comes in, doesn’t ask for any plays or touches, is just happy to be on the court,” Rodriguez said of Thomas. “He’s going to play hard, hit guys, and rebound. He’s not as offensively skilled as others, but others don’t bring the energy and hustle plays he does.”
Said Thomas: “I had no intentions of coming to The U, had no idea the U needed people. I was never on their radar because I wasn’t that level player yet. It’s weird how it turned out. I got lucky.”
UM men’s basketball at a glance
▪ Coach: Jim Larrañaga.
▪ Last season: 17-16 overall, 7-11 ACC (10th place).
▪ Top players: Angel Rodriguez (5-11, R-Jr., G), Sheldon McClellan (6-5, R-Jr, G), Manu Lecomte (5-11, Soph., G), Tonye Jekiri (7-0, Jr., C), Deandre Burnett (6-2, R-Fr., G).
▪ Noteworthy: UM returns just two players from last season – Lecomte and Jekiri. Sophomore Davon Reed is out with a leg injury until possibly February. There are no seniors. The roster includes players from five countries – Belgium, Nigeria, Puerto Rico, Spain and United States.