RedHawks look to find their identity under first-year coach Steele

Miami opens the season Monday night at home vs. Evansville

OXFORD -- Programs are likely to be hot items at Miami men’s basketball games – at least early in the season.

Besides a new coaching staff led by former Xavier coach Travis Steele, the RedHawks’ 15-player roster includes five freshmen and three transfers. That computes to more than half of the players being in their first season in Oxford.

One of them is 6-foot-5, 210-pound redshirt junior Morgan Safford, a Columbus, Ohio, native and transfer from Wofford who made such an immediate impact that he was elected by teammates to be one of three co-captains. One of his tasks has been trying to merge the all of the newcomers with the returning players and form a team.

“Every new transition is difficult at first, but we’ve improved by leaps and bounds going into the season,” Safford said. “It’s not been difficult. We have great guys in the locker room. I think the coaches brought in some great transfers and freshmen. I’ve just been trying to learn as much as possible about them.”

Miami opens the season Monday night at Millett Hall against visiting Evansville. The opening tip is at 8:30 p.m. following the women’s game vs. Xavier at 6 p.m.

Among Miami’s returning players is 5-8, 145-pound fifth-year senior guard Mekhi Lairy, who averaged 13.6 points per game and set the program’s single-season free throw percentage record with a .915 mark last season. Lairy was elected a team co-captain, along with Safford and 6-8, 305-pound senior forward Anderson Mirambeaux, a Dominican Republic native and transfer from Cleveland State.

Also back from last season is 6-7, 170-pound junior forward Kamari Williams, who started nine games while the RedHawks were going 14-18 overall and 8-12 in the Mid-American Conference last season, and 6-7, 225-pound sophomore Curtis Harrison IV, who played in 23 games and started three as a freshman last season.

The freshman class includes 6-8, 215-pound forward Mitchell Rylee from Covington (Ky.) Catholic High School and 6-7, 200-pound forward guard Billy Smith, an Indianapolis native who recently won Miami’s weekly practice award, breaking Safford’s streak, Steele said.

“Billy was our practice player of the week,” Steele said. “He’s always in the right spot. He was really well-coached in high school.”

Smith and his classmates could play key roles early as Miami tries to resurrect a program that hasn’t won a Mid-American Conference championship since the 2006-2007 season. The RedHawks were picked in a pre-season poll of MAC coaches to finish 11th in the 12-team conference.

“We have a lot of guys who have played basketball, but obviously, we’re going to rely heavily on our group of freshmen who haven’t played,” Steele said. “We have a lot of guys who haven’t played, but their growth over the last two weeks has been significant.

“I just want to see the guys get better every day.”

That includes displaying consistency.

“For me, playing time comes down to being the same guy every day – not riding the roller coaster,” Steele said. “You earn that right in practice. My focus has always been on the guys who make the hustle plays – the guys who have the physicality and toughness.

“Every team, good or bad, always has an identity,” Steele added. “If you can’t put a finger on it, you’re probably not going to be a very good team. We want to be the most connected team in the MAC. It starts with Anderson and Mekhi and Morgan being voted as captains. How connected we are starts with the captains doing a great job.”

Nine of Miami’s 13 non-conference games are scheduled to be played at Millett Hall, starting with Monday’s opener. Non-conference road games include visits to Georgia on Nov. 14, Indiana on Nov. 20 and Cincinnati on Dec. 14.

Miami is scheduled to open MAC play at Central Michigan on Jan. 3.

MONDAY’S GAME

Evansville at Miami, 8:30 p.m., ESPN3, 1410

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