AUTHOR'S NOTE: A special thanks to SOTU's hoops Consigliere Josh Frank (@JoshDaCane) who co-authored this article.
After an 8-0 start, highlighted by wins over a then top 10 Florida team and an undefeated, ranked Illinois team, as well as taking home the Charleston Classic title, there was some anxiety as the team limped into the break. The Canes lost by double-digits at home to a mid-major (though Green Bay is projected to win the Horizon League and stars a player on the Wooden Award Watch List) before listlessly beating a bottom-dweller (Savannah State) that had lost to its two previous power conference opponents by 61 and 46 points, rendering the Canes' 31-point victory less impressive. Whether fans think the Canes are closer to the undefeated, top 15 team that they were two weeks ago or view them as a somewhat flawed but talented team that is particularly vulnerable to a bad shooting night, no one can doubt that Coach Jim Larrañaga once again has the Hurricanes primed for relevance in March.
"We've gotten off to a great start, but there's a long way to go obviously," said Caputo. "It's encouraging when you've got a new group, a lot of guys who haven't worn the Miami jersey. I think that part of it is encouraging as these guys have come together pretty quickly."
The most obvious change is that this team, which is averaging 73.4 points per game, has far more offensive firepower than last year's, which was ranked 342 (out of 351 teams in Division I) in points per game, and had averaged only 63.5 points against similar non-conference foes even with four overtime games. According to statistical guru Ken Pomeroy, the team's offensive rating, adjusted for quality of opposition, is 17th best in the country.
"Overall, our offense has graded out pretty well," said Konkol, the team's offensive coordinator. "We're a small team, a perimeter-shooting team, so when we can get looks from three, I think we're pretty good." The Hurricanes are 15th nationally in three-point percentage (41.6 percent) and 16th in made three-point field goals (87). Deep with capable shooters, four players are shooting above 40 percent, led by sophomore guard Manu Lecomte at 51.1 percent.
The three-point shot can be a great equalizer - but if you live by the three, you can die by it as well. The coaches know this, and would like to see a more balanced offense. "We'd like to get some more points in the paint. We've posted up Sheldon (McClellan) some and when we get Tonye (Jekiri) the ball down there, he's pretty good at passing from the post," Konkol said. Konkol explained that Jekiri, the talented 7-foot junior who is still in only his fifth year of organized basketball, is working on perfecting his preferred turnaround jump shot. The guards can help in the paint as well, as Konkol said the team needs "to get better at making contested layups."
Junior guard McClellan, the team's leading scorer, is one player the staff encourages to be more aggressive, perhaps ironically after he left Texas amid rumors that he clashed with Coach Rick Barnes over poor shot selection. "Being our leading scorer and having a high field goal percentage is terrific," Konkol explained. "He's unique, he's got these comfort zone shots and likes to pick his spots, and his percentages are so much higher than at Texas." McClellan is tied for 7th in the ACC in field goal percentage at nearly 58 percent, a considerable feat for a guard who shoots multiple three-point attempts per game (at a nearly 43 percent clip).
The coaches also expect offensive versatility when forward Ivan Cruz Uceda, a mature junior college transfer who averaged 15.2 points per game in his two years at Harcum College, becomes eligible for the January 17 contest against Notre Dame. The staff expects him to integrate quickly and add a new dimension to the Hurricanes offense. "He'll flow pretty seamlessly into the groove of playing offense, because our subs at the 4 have been [James] Palmer and Omar [Sherman], and our perimeter players can stretch the floor," Caputo explained. "Ivan, we hope, can give us more of a scoring presence as he has a back to the basket game and can score near the rim."
While the Hurricanes have been shorthanded to start the season, with only eight scholarship players available at times, the staff will soon find itself with up to 11 capable players hungry for minutes, and with the possible exception of graduate forward Joe Thomas, shots on offense. Caputo said, "Obviously, it's a difficult thing, but it's also clear that we're a team that moves the ball. For us, we've kind of really harped on it and I think you see, with the exception of the Green Bay game, the ball has moved pretty freely, most everybody has gotten involved offensively." Caputo explained that the team struggled offensively against Green Bay due to a unique style of switching using smaller interior players, which forced the Canes into poor shot selection, but expects the team to evolve going forward against ACC opponents. Overall, the staff will gladly work to parse out minutes to its many talented players, with Caputo adding, "It's a better problem to have then not having a lot of players who can play."
Miami's success and depth belies its inexperience as a unit, with eight of 11 scholarship players having never worn a Miami uniform in a competitive contest before this season. Much has been written about experienced transfers Angel Rodriguez, the team's second-leading scorer and leader in assists and steals, McClellan and Thomas, who have started all ten games for the Hurricanes. Less has been said about their freshman counterparts, as returnees Jekiri , the team's leading rebounder and Lecomte, its third-leading scorer, have started every game alongside the upperclassmen transfers.
Caputo explained that while the upperclassmen and returnees have been the more obvious stars, the freshmen are living up to expectations. Amongst freshmen in the ACC, "all of our guys are in the top half of minutes played," Caputo said, which also largely holds true for top 25 teams as well. Though it can be hard for a high school superstar to become a role player, Miami's freshmen are doing a great job in keeping the proper perspective. "Understanding you're a freshman, you're on a team that is having success early and yet you are contributing, - that should be a good indication things are going well." Guard Deandre Burnett has been the most obvious contributor, averaging nearly 11 points off the bench since returning from injury and leading the team in scoring in its ACC-Big Ten victory over Illinois, but the others have contributed as well. Big man Sherman is third on the team in rebounding, while do-everything guard Palmer, once considered a potential redshirt candidate, leads all freshmen in total minutes and is shooting nearly 46 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point land. And whither Ja'Quan Newton, the highly-touted guard from Philadelphia, who chose Miami over traditional powers such as UCLA and Syracuse? Newton, who Konkol called a "unique" slashing asset, is tied for third on the team in free throw attempts (21) and has a positive assist to turnover ratio, extremely rare for a freshman player with an attacking mindset.
All of the coaches agreed that one area the freshmen can assert themselves in the rotation is on the defensive end of the floor. Michael Huger, the team's defensive coordinator, said that the freshmen are "improving" defensively and that overall are doing a "great job." But even if the staff doesn't expect more on that end quite yet, it is an opportunity for the players to stand out and grab minutes. "They're still learning, and it's going to be a work in progress pretty much this first year," Huger explained. "It really takes about a year in our system to understand what they're supposed to do, what their rotations are."
Huger explained that while the coaching staff shows video and works on defensive drills, the greatest teacher is the example set by more experienced teammates in practice. "When a guy like Ja'Quan goes up against Angel and sees his defensive toughness, and understands this is how hard you have to go, I think that helps Ja'Quan tremendously," Huger said. "When Deandre goes against Manu and sees the pressure he puts on the ball, that helps him out."
The reason the coaches feel that the freshmen can learn from their teammates is simple - "our defense has been really good, better than expected," said Huger. Despite concerns about the small lineup, the team's adjusted defense is 63rd best in the country, according to Ken Pomeroy. With the lengthy Davon Reed just returning and Cruz Uceda providing more size and rebounding, Huger only expects that to improve. With more time and comfort will come new wrinkles. "We'll probably add the zone at some point just to give us another weapon," Huger said. And fans can expect to see Larrañaga's Scramble defense as well. "That's something that takes a little bit longer because of the rotations and things like that," Huger explained. "We'll have the lineups soon to be a really good Scramble team."
One area that all three coaches emphasized was the need for improved rebounding. The team is 241st nationally in opponent's rebounds, and larger, more athletic ACC teams will only exacerbate the problem. "Rebounding is something we have to harp on, especially gang rebounding," Caputo said. "I think Tonye's been rebounding as well as any 5-man in the league, and he still leads the league in (total) rebounding." Graduate transfer Joe Thomas has grabbed 19 rebounds in the last two games. "I'm very encouraged by his rebounding the past two games," said Caputo. "That's something we really challenged him with and he doing everything we've asked of him on and off the floor." Caputo expects the return of Reed and the introduction of Cruz Uceda into the lineup as a boost to the Hurricanes' rebounding efforts, with Cruz Uceda having led the team overall in rebounding during the preseason, and Reed the team's best rebounding guard during its trip to Spain.
With the team off to a fast start and reinforcements on the way, the staff is looking forward to a challenging ACC schedule that starts with a visit from Virginia, the defending conference champion and currently ranked in the top 6 in both major polls. But first, visits from Eastern Kentucky and the College of Charleston (12/30) are sandwiched around a nationally televised contest against Larrañaga's alma mater, Providence College, from the Barclays Center in Brooklyn (12/22). After being projected to finish 10th in the ACC, the Hurricanes look like an NCAA Tournament team and for a third straight year will likely exceed expectations and expert projections. For that, Hurricane fans should be truly excited to once again be along for Coach L's Wild Ride. Let's hope they come cheer the Canes on at the Bank United Center like they did on that magical run two years ago.