Following Miami's thorough 71-47 flogging of FSU at the BUC on 1/27, Josh and I had the privilege to chat with Seminoles Coach Leonard Hamilton for a good 15-20 minutes in the press room. Coach Ham talked about how this year's UM squad, much like last year's FSU team, had reached a "magic" level of play. In other words they got it, and just knew how to win. He talked about the difference between "coaching" a veteran group, as opposed to "teaching" a younger team. Reflecting on that discussion got me thinking about what next year might be like.
While the 'Canes may indeed have a difficult time replacing their 5 departed seniors, I believe the Hurricanes Hoops team of 2013-14 could very well overachieve and surpass expectation if a few things go right.
First and foremost, they absolutely positively need Shane Larkin to return for his junior year. Larkin at first indicated he was going to return, but there have been mixed messages of late. In my opinion Larkin has potential to resemble anyone from Tyrone Lue to Chris Paul as a pro. There's a vast difference there, but even Expert ESPN analyst Bomani Jones wants to see more from Larkin. So it's still anyone's guess if Sugar Shane comes back. If Larkin does return, we already know he can play in the ACC at a very high level. Even if he faces the specter of more double teams and game plans designed on getting the ball out of his hands, Larkin will surely improve his game this summer and would make the 'Canes a still dangerous out next year.
If Larkin does go pro, well let's be honest, expectations drop significantly. But even with an ALL-American PG at the helm, Miami still needs a few more things to go right to have a signature 2013-14. To me the next huge key is going to be the development of Tonye Jekiri. Coach Larranaga and those close to the program rave about the young man's potential. And you could see glimpses of his athleticism, defensive prowess, and finishing ability at the rim as a true freshman. But can he develop a low post game? Miami will need him to be a threat down low to help take pressure off of Larkin and Co on the outside.
Another potential spark is the return of Garrius Adams. The 6'6 combo guard who redshirted this year due to injury has only averaged 5.4 ppg in three injury filled years at the U. But when I think of Adams, I envision a back court version of Julian Gamble. A guy who can when finally healthy, and via a few years of good coaching, can put it all together and have a special senior season. Look for Adams to shine bright next year.
The next key factor for next year is Rion Brown, Is there a more polarizing player on the 'Canes roster then Rion Brown? 21 points on 5-10 from downtown saved UM from a 2nd round exit against Illinois, but 1-8 and 5 points hurt Miami's chances in the Sweet 16 against Marquette. His NCAA Tournament performance was a microcosm of his season. Brown returns next year for his senior campaign hoping to find the consistency to elevate his game to the next level. RB will always have a spot on the rotation because he is a terrific defender, and certainly this year his floor game and mid range jumper improved this season. But with perimeter threats like Kenny Kadji and Trey McKinney Jones no longer in the fray, the "Canes will need a more consistent Rion Brown to remain in the upper echelon of the ACC next year.
And with so many seniors moving on, Miami will certainly need freshman contributions next season as well. Unless your talking Anthony Davis circa last year, this can be a dicey proposition. The guy I expect to have the most immediate impact is 6'1 combo guard Deandre Burnett. Burnett's scoring prowess in high school is the stuff of legends. Despite the prolific numbers he put up in 4 years of secondary school, most "expert" recruiting services listed him as a 3 star prospect coming out of high school. Word is after a year at Massanutten Military Academy, folks are beginning to re-think their original evaluations. Burnett could very well be a sleeper candidate for ACC Rookie of the Year next year, even with Duke and UNC bringing in the usual boatloads of 5 star athletes.
Speaking of incoming freshman, Miami also has 6'5 4 star prospect Davon Reed on the way in. Not to mention 6'8 240 pound junior college transfer James Kelly in the mix. 5'11 PG Cornelius Elder committed to play RB for Al Golden, but he has made no bones about his interest in being a dual sport star. And there is still the very real possibility that 6'9 4 star big man Demetrius Henry (UM is in his final 2 with South Carolina) and 6'8 Junior Etou could still also commit. The team will certainly have a an infusion of youth next year.
Perhaps the final and single biggest reason to remain optimistic for next year is Coach Larranaga. Remember the guy who took a group of unheralded George Mason players to the Final 4? The same guy who got Frank Haith's players to play at previously unprecedented levels. Coach L will find a way. He may need to go small and use the untapped freakish abilities of Erik Swoope with the team pressing and playing fast. Look for Coach L to play to the strength of his players and tweak strategy as needed. Players unfortunately come and go, but programs that stay on top do so because of great coaching and recruiting. Is there much reason to doubt Coach Larranaga will keep the 'Canes relevant?
While I do not expect that next year's Hurricanes Hoops team will win both the ACC regular season and Tournament championships, I do feel they can make the NCAA Tourney again as an at large. And as we have seen, once a team gets there, anything can happen. They have some big shoes to fill, but if any number of the possibilities outlined above come to fruition, they may not fall off as greatly as you think.
In other words, Stay tuned 'Canes fans!