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THE MIAMI HERALD
Guillermo Diaz, UM Freshman, Has Soaring Reputation In The Big East
BY MICHELLE KAUFMAN
January 14, 2004
The legend took off the moment Guillermo Diaz catapulted off the floor and left taller teammates gaping in the Miami Christian gym that summer day of 2002. The news traveled fast to the University of Miami basketball office -- ''There's this Puerto Rican kid, a world-class volleyball player, joining the basketball team at Miami Christian. Fifty-inch vertical!''
UM coach Perry Clark rolled his eyes. He has heard his share of tall tales in three decades of coaching.
''The kid is only 6-1 and can grab a dollar bill off the top of the backboard! You better get him, or you'll be sorry.''
UM assistant Greg Gary persisted. Clark took note.
And so began the courtship between UM and its starting freshman guard, a raw talent who has quickly established himself as the most exciting player on the team, an early candidate for Big East Rookie of the Year, and a recruiting steal. The Hurricanes signed Diaz in November 2002, before he played a single game for Miami Christian, before he won slam-dunk contests at five tournaments around the nation, before most coaches had him on their watch list.
"It was a gamble, but the more we saw him, the more I thought, 'Heck, we need to do this,' '' Clark said. ''He has been such a pleasant surprise, especially his ability to shoot. Most guys who jump like that don't have good form on their shot. And he is only going to get better with more knowledge of the game. Right now, he's excelling off instinct, courage and competitiveness.''
In last Saturday's double-overtime loss to No. 15 Pitt, Diaz banked in what was almost the game-winning shot in regulation with 3.9 seconds remaining. Despite having two defenders in his face, he hit a three-pointer with 2.8 seconds left in the first overtime to force a second overtime. He hit another three in the second overtime to bring his game total to 18 points, and finished with five rebounds, three assists and two steals.
''Diaz is an extremely gifted basketball player who seems very calm in big-time situations, and with more experience, he could become one of the better players in the Big East, if not the country,'' said Matt Dougherty, former Notre Dame and North Carolina coach, and a TV commentator for the UM-Pitt game.
''I don't know if you'll find a more athletic, skilled two-guard anywhere in the country. There are areas where his inexperience showed, like fouling Julius Page on a three-point shot and getting a cross-court pass picked off, but Coach Clark and UM fans should be very excited about this kid. A great find.''
Turns out Diaz's vertical leap was actually 41 inches, not as high as rumored, but higher than anyone on the Hurricanes' roster and plenty high to razzle-dazzle above the rim. His passing and court vision are also exceptional, Clark said.
Ed Auricchio, then an assistant at Miami Christian, had practiced with the 1976 Rutgers Final Four team and told Clark the kid was as good as Ed Jordan and Phil Sellers, members of that team. Clark coached for Georgia Tech against that Rutgers team. A comparison to Jordan and Sellers carried weight.
''Everyone I asked said the same thing, that if we let this kid go too long, everyone would find out about him, so we offered him the scholarship,'' Clark said.
Two months after signing, Diaz was declared ineligible by the Florida High School Athletic Association, which ruled he and two other Puerto Rican players had been illegally recruited by Miami Christian. Diaz sat out the high school playoffs and was eager to put the bitter experience behind him when he arrived on the UM campus.
''UM was the perfect place for me because the climate is like Puerto Rico, a lot of people speak Spanish, my family can get here easily, and I can be close to my high school coach [Art Alvarez], who takes good care of me,'' he said. ''Besides, I figured I could play a lot as a freshman. It just felt right.''
Diaz remains close with his mother, Ethel Gonzalez, a legal secretary and former high school volleyball player, and his 24-year-old half-brother, Carlos Escalera, last season's Most Valuable Player in the Puerto Rican pro basketball league. Escalera, a Division II All-American while at Missouri Southern, is averaging 24.7 points for the Coamo Maratonistas.
''Me and my brother watched NBA and college basketball together as kids, so me getting to play at North Carolina was a big thrill,'' Diaz said. ''I realized those guys were no different than me.''
If Diaz, UM's third-leading scorer at 11.5 points per game, seems more composed than most freshmen, he says it's partly because of his experience on the international volleyball stage. His body control in the air is also a product of volleyball. Last summer, Diaz was named Most Valuable Player and Best Server at the 2003 Under-18 World Championship in Thailand. He was so well-thought of in volleyball circles, that several Pac-10 teams asked him to visit.
''Guillermo is one of the great volleyball talents in our country, and his potential is incredible,'' said Carlos Beltran, president of the Puerto Rican Volleyball Federation. ''He has natural ability, his jump is explosive, and he routinely leaped over players who are 6-8 and 6-9. I imagine he is converting those same skills for the basketball court.''
Beltran said he wishes Diaz success at UM but selfishly hopes he returns to volleyball.
Diaz's mother is not interfering. ''Guillermo is exceptional in both sports, so it's totally up to him,'' she said. ''My main concern is that he get his degree and have a career. What game he chooses to play doesn't matter.''