Alex Butler and Sam Hitchcock

Miami University slammed into its men’s basketball season with a buzzer beater win over Weber State University Wednesday.

Now, two seasons removed from a MAC tournament title and an NCAA tournament appearance, the RedHawks look to rebound in 2008-09. Graduating only one senior from last season’s squad and picked by league coaches to finish second in the MAC east, Miami flies in with high expectations.

Below, Miami Student basketball beat writers Alex Butler and Sam Hitchcock bounce around ideas of what RedHawk fans can look for on the hardwood this season.

Who is this year’s key player?

Alex Butler (AB): One player that I would expect to step up this year is forward Tyler Dierkers. He has a large 6 foot, 8 inch frame and is very athletic. The ‘Hawks can’t afford to lose anything on the boards in a tough MAC conference and Dierkers grabs his fair share off of the glass. The team really needs to get back to fundamentals and easy buckets. This years team doesn’t really have that “key player” feel to me. I think that it has a better chance at success if they can put three or four players in double figures every night.

Sam Hitchcock (SH): This year’s key player is undoubtedly Antonio Ballard. After going down with an injury last year three minutes into his first game, the red-shirt sophomore looked electrifying in Miami’s exhibition game against Saginaw Valley Saturday. He not only dominated offensively, posting 16 points and getting to the free throw line 12 times, but he also grabbed eight defensive rebounds. After the game Charlie Coles explained that he was excited that Ballard was beginning to play up to his potential citing that he is far from playing at his highest level.

How will this team fill the void of Tim Pollitz?

AB: It is time for someone else to be “the guy” or for this team to have a couple guys that are willing to put in the work to be great on both ends of the floor. Basketball is one of those sports where all the little things matter, not just scoring but rebounding and aggressive defense. One thing that this team can do immediately to fill this “void” is just to rebound. If this year’s team can clean up around the glass it will open up more opportunity and make everyone on the team matter.

SH: If there was ever a team to rally around the type of hardworking, gritty attitude that Pollitz brought from night to night it’s this team. Led by a strong veteran squad, Miami is poised to make serious noise not just within the MAC but throughout the national ranks. Sophomore Nick Winbush and red-shirt junior Adam Fletcher hope to fill the void of Tim Pollitz’s departure and have all the talent to do it. While Winbush is more versatile with a strong jump shot and ability to drive to the hoop, Fletcher provides the ‘Hawks with more of a low-post presence.

What sophomore player(s) will step up into a bigger role this year?

AB: Nick Winbush is beginning to emerge and gaining playing time with his scrappy play. He can shoot from an array of areas on the floor. I really think that he can add a lot to the depth of the team because Miami really needs all of the size and athleticism it can get. Also, I expect Antonio Ballard to put up big numbers this year. He put up 16 points against Saginaw Valley State to lead the ‘Hawks in scoring. If Ballard is able to stay consistent and play that “all around” game, I think that he can bring a lot to the table.

SH: I expect Nick Winbush and Rodney Haddix II to make the biggest splash. Although Winbush might have a bigger role (filling in for Tim Pollitz), the value of Haddix cannot be measured. Last year Miami lacked the bench to play 40 minutes against some teams, but Haddix should give them that depth at the guard position when Ballard and Hayes need a rest.

What will this year’s freshman class bring to the RedHawks this season?

AB: It’s a little bit early to forecast which players will do what, but I really like Julian Mavunga. He is a forward with good size, 6 foot, 8 inch, and coach Coles mentioned that he has good range offensively. Also, Kramer Soderberg can bring a lot to the guard position. Consistency is key at every position and has been what RedHawk teams have lacked in the past. The guard position is what will organize this offense.

SH: The most coveted prospect that Miami signed in its 2008 recruiting class was Kramer Soderberg out of St. Charles West in St. Louis, Missouri. Son of former St. Louis University coach Brad Soderberg, Kramer averaged 24.4 points a game in high school and was named Gatorade Player of the Year for Missouri. He measures up at 5’11, but this feisty guard can shoot the three (making almost 50 percent of his 3’s in high school) and is expected to contribute along with Haddix off the bench.

What is the post-season outlook for Miami?

AB: I see Miami as an emerging team this year. Experience is priceless and that is one thing that this team has going for them. I think that Miami can finish in the top of the MAC once again this year. Dierkers has all of the necessary tools to drive this team defensively and he is just one of those players that coaches love to have on their team. As long as this team has that ability to keep the foot on the gas for an entire game I think that they could be good.

SH: The world is definitely on notice of the RedHawks, who even received a vote in the AP polls for National Top 25 consideration. However, in the MAC East they were predicted by ESPN to finish 2nd to Kent State University. Although Kent State is unquestionably a strong team, the RedHawks boast experience, significant depth, good coaching and lots of talent. If Coach Coles can manage his bench efficiently and fully utilize the plethora of talent he has on his team, there is no question the RedHawks can win the MAC championship.