Miami Hurricanes Basketball: After Bumpy Start at Texas, McClellan Has Found His Home at Miami

Jan 25, 2016; Coral Gables, FL, USA; Miami Hurricanes guard Sheldon McClellan (10) reacts against the Duke Blue Devils during the first half at BankUnited Center. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 25, 2016; Coral Gables, FL, USA; Miami Hurricanes guard Sheldon McClellan (10) reacts against the Duke Blue Devils during the first half at BankUnited Center. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports /

When we as fans watch college basketball, what criteria do we consider when evaluating a player? Often we evaluate athleticism or how accurate his jump shot is or whether or not he dives on the floor. But what about a player’s mental state? What about his rapport with coaches or with other players, even those bonds off the court? Many fans don’t even consider this aspect of a player’s make-up.

Take for example, Sheldon McClellan.

To dig deeper into the journey of the now confident and composed leader on this year’s Miami squad, we have to go back six years to Bellaire High School in Houston, Texas. McClellan was a star in the making at Bellaire, which has produced alumni like Emeka Okafor and John Lucas III (as well as Dennis and Randy Quaid), and he was staying close to home to play for Rick Barnes and the Texas Longhorns. A good thing, right?

From the get-go, the 6’5’’ McClellan showed his potential. He was the team’s second-leading scorer as a freshman and was part of a team that made the 2012 NCAA Tournament, but something was not quite right. The Houston native was an impressive force on offense, but too often McClellan was found facing a yelling and frustrated Rick Barnes or on the bench next to the assistant coaches. For a player with his talent, why was he so frequently in the doghouse?

The question was seemingly never answered and McClellan and the Longhorns were bounced in the First Round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament with a 65-59 defeat at the hands of the Cincinnati Bearcats. It was a disappointing end to what had looked like a promising season for Texas after the team started 9-2. Although the future looked bright for UT with McClellan entering his second year along with Jaylen Bond, Julien Lewis and Myck Kabongo, the situation only grew worse.

What happened behind the scenes we may never know, but the relationship between Barnes and McClellan and many others on the team soured. The team that on paper was full of talent and high expectations and was predicted to finish fourth in the Big 12 was crumbling. They weren’t developing, but rather were turning into a group of in-fighters and players low on confidence.

That 2012-13 season of misery finally ended against the Houston Cougars in the season-ending CBI tournament, as the 16-18 Longhorns did not qualify for either the NCAA or NIT tournaments. After the season, much of the blame for the team’s woes fell on the shoulders of Sheldon McClellan. The sophomore averaged 13.5 points per game, but shot 38.2% from the field, which was down 6.6% from his first season in Austin. He was referred to as a lazy, selfish player and one who made too many mental mistakes to lead a successful team. Did anyone care to take the time to think about why that was the case with McClellan and many of the other young players on the Texas roster? The answer was no.

Seeing a coach berate a player over and over and swing a player in and out of the lineup would make anyone think it is the player’s fault. The coach is the team’s authority figure, the all-mighty hand that guides a team to glory. But there is so much more to each and every player’s journey than just his shooting percentage or points per game. There are so many reasons why a player could be struggling and in this case it seemed pretty clear where those problems were stemming from.

In May of 2013, Peter Bean and Jeff Haley, of the SB Nation site, “Burnt Orange Nation”, wrote a piece entitled, “Rick Barnes Review: Looking Back at the Longhorns’ Nightmare 2012-13 Season.” In their review of the season, the two described Rick Barnes and his coaching job with the Longhorns squad that had six freshman and four sophomores including McClellan.

“The veteran head coach simply failed to communicate effectively with this group, hammering on the players he needed to step up without regard to whether his tactics were actually working,” Bean and Haley wrote. “McClellan and Lewis were both yo-yo’d in and out of the line up all season long, with no adjustment from Barnes when his approach was very clearly having the opposite of the intended effect.”

The Burnt Orange Nation writers continued their piece by writing, “Tasked with helping the youngest group in the country learn how to win, Barnes rode his players like a veteran-laden squad that was underachieving and were better than they were showing. Instead of helping an offensively challenged team learn to relax and develop a flow within the game, he created a group of players who were all terrified to make a mistake. Where this group needed to have fun so they could start believing in themselves, Barnes unleashed a torrent of negative reinforcement.”

What makes a great coach is the ability to connect with his players and find out what motivates each and every guy. In the case of Rick Barnes, that didn’t happen during the 2012-2013 season and the result was three transfers and two players who left earlier than they should have for professional basketball.

In the spring of 2013, McClellan announced he would be leaving Texas to pursue opportunities at other schools. Often in the case of transfers we see a long statement expressing gratitude to the school and the coaches for taking care of them over their time there, but with McClellan, his statement was short and sweet.

The Houston native told, “I want to thank everyone who supported me while at The University of Texas. I enjoyed my time at Texas. I just need a change of venue.” The message was clear. McClellan was a player looking for a leader he could connect with.

With his time at Texas in the past, McClellan began exploring his options for his next school. He would need to sit out the 2013-2014 season, but that year out was worth it for the change in scenery. That is when Jim Larrañaga and the Miami Hurricanes entered the picture.

The Canes were fresh off of their best season in program history with an ACC Regular Season title, an ACC Tournament title and a Sweet 16 appearance . Their success caught McClellan’s attention. “I liked the plays they ran, the open-court stuff, and the way they all seemed to be playing for each other,” McClellan said when watching Miami’s tournament run in 2013. “They seemed to be having fun, and the coaches seemed positive on the bench. I wish I had come here as a freshman.”

With the help of Angel Rodriguez, who had already transferred to Miami from Kansas State, McClellan made a decision to join the Canes that would completely flip the direction of his career in a markedly positive way.

To Hurricanes coach Jim Larrañaga, it seemed like a simple equation to turn McClellan’s potential into realized talent. “I was very surprised when Sheldon told me he lacked confidence in his shooting and when I watched him shoot in practice his was terrific,” Miami’s head coach said of McClellan’s arrival. “All we needed to do was build up his self-esteem and his belief in himself. It wasn’t like we had to improve his shot, his shot was already there, all we needed to do was let him know how good he was.” That quote from Larrañaga captures the essence of a coach that most guys would want to play their hearts out for.

The coach’s encouragement not only resulted in further development in McClellan’s game, it shaped him into one of Miami team’s leaders. “Like I always have said, he gives me a lot of confidence. If I miss two shots in a row he believes I’m going to make the third one. He always tells me to keep shooting and as a player that’s something you wish for in college,” McClellan said of Larrañaga’s coaching style. “Some players don’t get the opportunity where the coach’s main priority for you is to shoot so I’m very thankful he has the confidence in me and obviously he’s done a great job coaching the team. He’s always giving players positive outlooks on their game, turn the ball over or not, he’s always going to make you feel comfortable on the court.”

That comfortable feeling resulted in a huge improvement for both McClellan as a player and also for the Hurricanes as a team. Along with the other new arrival Angel Rodriguez, McClellan helped the Canes improve from 17-16 in 2013-14 to 25-13 in 2014-15. In the 2014-15 season, McClellan averaged 14.5 points and shot at a 48.4% clip to lead the team. The Hurricanes just missed out on an NCAA Tournament spot, but carried that disappointment with them through the NIT. Miami lost 66-64 in the NIT Final to Stanford on a questionable call, but the foundation was laid for a fantastic team in the 2015-16 season.

In his fifth year of college basketball, McClellan became the star everyone anticipated he would be when he entered the scene back in 2011. He lit up the country as one of the most efficient collegiate players and led the Hurricanes in scoring with 15.8 points per game and a 50.0% shooting percentage. While he was never thrown into the discussion for National or ACC Player of the Year awards, much of that had to do with the fact he was so unselfish and that didn’t go unnoticed by his head coach.

“In Sheldon McClellan’s case, I’ve said this over and over, he’s so team-oriented that he’s never going to dominate in quantity, but his quality of work, his body of work is so consistently efficient that you have to give him tremendous credit where a lot of guys are up and down, he’s as steady as a rock,” Larrañaga said of his redshirt senior from Houston. “Now he may not get 20 points every night, but when you look at his statistics over the course of the season, in almost every one of those games his field goal percentage is over 50%. That’s spectacular because that allows me as the coach to know that we are going to get a major contribution from Sheldon every night.”

In contrast to his time at Texas where he was labeled as a lazy and selfish player who couldn’t give the team consistent performances, McClellan has become the complete opposite in Coral Gables. If you think that doesn’t have to do with the way he has been coached, you are crazy. “At UM, everything is positive, never any negative energy. Coach L is like a father on the court. I love him to death,” McClellan said in the team’s media guide. “I like how positive he is, whether it is 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.”

With McClellan’s performances pushing him into almost every NBA Mock Draft, the Hurricanes went through a similar rise as they finished the year 24-6 and found themselves at the top of the ACC until the last day of the regular season. The Canes fell in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament to a strong Virginia squad, but with a 25-7 overall record, Miami earned a No. 3 seed in the 2016 NCAA Tournament.

McClellan told reporters he wished he could stay another year, but the reality is his time with Miami and Coach Jim Larrañaga is nearing its end. “It’s been great. Obviously we went through struggles at our past schools, but I wouldn’t say it was bad years at those schools, we just had a better two years here,” McClellan said while sitting next to Rodriguez when asked of his time at Miami. “That credit goes to Coach L and the coaching staff for them believing and trusting in us. We came here and they put the ball in our hands and told us to be aggressive, which gave us a lot of confidence.”

McClellan’s journey could meet a storybook ending with the NCAA Tournament just a few days away. Miami will have plenty of obstacles to hurdle in a difficult South Region, but if they do, the Final Four is in no other place but Houston, Texas, the home of Sheldon McClellan. “It’s going to be great. I’ve only been to the tournament one time when I was a freshman at Texas and even just that first round game was fun,” McClellan said before the Canes started the 2016 NCAA Tournament. “I can’t imagine what the Sweet 16 and beyond would feel like, but I’m pretty sure it’s amazing. I’m definitely looking to go for that with this team. To play in the Final Four in my hometown would be the best thing ever.”

Sometimes you can’t just judge a player just by what he does on the court. Other factors can affect his performance and all you need to do is look at Sheldon McClellan’s career arc to figure that out. His journey was a bumpy one at the start, but with the help of a great coach and atmosphere at Miami, Sheldon McClellan has blossomed into a complete star and will have a chance to end it as the ultimate winner – and in his hometown where it all started. As a player that has completely turned his career around, wouldn’t that be fitting.