Entering the new year and the heart of a very difficult ACC schedule, the new-look Miami Hurricanes men's basketball team have had a third of the season in the record book to answer questions about what the team's identity will be after losing so much from last year's Sweet 16 team. At 8-5 overall (0-1 ACC), there are still more questions than answers. SOTU had the opportunity to chat with assistant coach Michael Huger about where the team is now, and where he hopes it is heading for the rest of the season and beyond.
"The main thing is we've got to get better in all phases of the game," Huger said. "When you have multiple things you've got to correct, it makes it a little more difficult. We're not far away but we still have a lot of things to work on."
The Hurricanes struggles have been particularly noticeable on offense, where the team has posted an Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions) of 102.4, which ranks 227th of 351 Division 1 teams, and is averaging only 65.0 points, good for 307th. One major reason is that freshmen Davon Reed and Manu Lecomte have been splitting time at the point. Though both are doing an admirable job, it's a change from the steady leadership of NBA 1st-round pick Shane Larkin the last two years. The team also lacks a natural three-point bomber - four Hurricanes from last year's team had career percentages higher than Rion Brown's 33.3 percent, which leads all returnees. Reed (37.5 percent), Lecomte (38.1), and junior college transfer James Kelly (45.0), but only Reed shoots at the volume of seniors Brown and Garrius Adams from outside.
That the Hurricanes are out of sync at times is no surprise. Some players prefer the ball in different spots on the floor or from different types of passes. Huger says that is a matter of getting the players used to each other and developing the chemistry that comes with years of playing together.
"When you have guys that haven't played together, it's tough to get them to gel and think as one," Huger explained. "Right now, we have individual thinkers and not collective thinkers. Once we get it together and those guys start to play as one, everything will change and some of those close games, we'll win, which helps their confidence."
On the defensive end, the team has been surprisingly effective - with a huge caveat. Known for playing tight man-to-man defense and mixing in full-court pressure with his scramble defense, Coach Jim Larranaga has the Hurricanes playing more 2-3 zone than any of his teams at any point in his career. This has taken advantage of a long and lengthy team, where Lecomte is the only available scholarship player listed below 6'5", and preserves a thin team that has only nine available scholarship players. The Hurricanes have a defensive rating of 95.3 (points allowed per 100 possessions), which is 53rd in Division I, and their 60.3 points per game allowed ranks 12th out of all teams.
More than solving those specific challenges, the Hurricanes coaching staff is looking to see someone step up into a leadership role. Though this is a team with five seniors, they are all playing very different roles for the first time in their career. Brown has perhaps made the most impact, with his hustle setting an example for other players as he is leading the team in points and assists, while placing second in rebounds and steals. Garrius Adams has made a major impact as he returns to the court after almost two years away. But neither of them has stepped up to the mantle of clear leader at this point.
"We have to find that leader," Huger said. "It seems like Davon Reed is trying to emerge as that guy, but he's not experienced enough to get there yet. He's a freshman but he's trying."
The Hurricanes are on a three-game winning streak, after solid wins against LaSalle and Loyola (MD) at home and a road win over Savannah State. While the improvement has excited Canes fans, it may be short-lived, as the team is walking into a buzzsaw of an ACC schedule that starts with games on the road versus Syracuse (January 4) and North Carolina (January 8).
Huger said that the change has been noticeable in practice as well as in the results of games.
"We have been practicing better," Huger told us. "We pay attention to the details in our scouting reports and overall we've been working much harder." The team has been communicating better and learning each others' playing styles, leading to more easy baskets and a reduction in turnovers.
The Hurricanes will need to continue to make strides in all aspects of the game and establish consistency to remain competitive the rest of the way.
Author's note: As usual SOTU's hoops consigliere Josh Frank added his input and editing skills to this piece and for that this writer it grateful.