State of the U Catches Up with Jim Larranaga
SOTU spent some time with UM Hoops Head Man Jim Larranaga. Coach L gave us the scoop on an activity that involves thinking outside of the box, scouting reports on returning and new players in the program, his staff changes, and more
In all 4 seasons since Jim Larranaga took over the program, Miami Hoops has finished better in the conference than the ACC Media has predicted for them in the preseason.
Predicted (bold) Actual (italics):
2014-15 - 10th – t-6th
2013-14 - 12th – 10th
2012-13 - 5th – 1st
2011-12 - 5th – t-4th
This is both a testament to Coach L and his staff's abilities to get the most out of their rosters, and an indication of the conference media's hesitance to overestimate UM Vs traditional ACC powers (understandably so).
But given the 'Canes propensity to do better than expectation in the Larranaga era, it is an extremely promising sign that in 2015 they were picked 5th for the 3rd time in 5 years.
And given the depth of the league this coming season, a 5th place finish is a sign of respect and would almost guarantee a spot in the NCAA Tournament if Miami proves prognosticators correct.
There is certainly an air of optimism around this team.
They have sold more season tickets than any season past, and reportedly have fewer than 500 remaining.
But it will take more than even the wizardry of Coach L, and a consistently packed Bank United Center, to compete for an ACC Championship in arguably the best and most competitive conference in America.
It is going to take a talented and experienced roster.
Fortunately for 'Canes fans this might just be one of the best and most experienced starting units in the country (including 4 seniors and a junior), and there are no shortage of options off the bench.
Let's break it down.
Projected Starting 5 -
Center - Tonye Jekiri 7'0 244 Senior (8.6 ppg, 9.9 rpg 1.1 apg 1.4 blks 2014-15). Jekiri led the conference in rebounds last season, and his offensive game continues to evolve. Jekiri can step out and hit 15 footers, his back to the basket game is slightly above average, and he is exceptional at getting offensive rebounds. TJ can stand to improve finishing in tight, but is pretty efficient overall. Jekiri also knocks down FTs (73%) much better than average for a big. He moves exceptionally well for a man his size, and has an NBA body. He's a defensive presence and should benefit from more help at the 4 (read Kamari Murphy) allowing him to rove and block more shots. By season's end he could/should be one of the best overall players in the ACC.
Power Forward - Ivan Cruz Uceda 6'10 217 Senior (5.2 ppg 3.5 rpg 34% 3P% 2014-15). Cruz-Uceda is your classic stretch 4. He loves to step out and knock down triples, and he has a very quick/smooth release. He really struggled last season on the defensive end though. There is hope he will improve after losing 20+ pounds this summer, and coming to camp looking like a completely different person. UM needs him to hold his own down low. He is a very skilled as a passer and has the hands to be good on the glass. But it remains to be seen if he is physically strong enough to hold up in the ACC. Nonetheless he has value as a shooter. If he gives them anything in close, it's a bonus. If he struggles, Kamari Murphy could take this spot in a heart beat.
Small Forward - Davon Reed 6'6 208 Junior (8.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 1.9 apg, 47% FGs 45.7 3P%, 2014-15). Reed missed the first 8 games of last season with injury, and really started out slow when he returned. But coming down the stretch he was a force, averaging 10.8 points, 7.0 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.0 blocks in the NIT. Reed is the team's best perimeter defender, and arguably their most efficient scorer. He could be in for a huge season, especially if he commits to being aggressive every game and taking the ball to the basket consistently.
Shooting Guard - Sheldon McClellan 6'5 205 Senior (14.5 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 48% FGs 82% FTs 35.8% 3P%). McClellan is UM's best scorer, and by season's end has a chance to be the best player in the conference. He is explosive above the rim, can handle like a PG, defends, rebounds very well for a guard, and can make shots from all over the floor. He is at his best when he attacks, attacks, attacks. The only real Q about the senior from Houston is can he stay aggressive all season long from start to finish. If he can, he is in for a monster season.
Point Guard - Angel Rodriguez 5'11 180 Senior (11.9 points, 3.9 assists, 2.3 rebounds, 1.8 steals 33% FGs 30% 3P% in 2014-15). With out Angel, UM likely loses games they won Vs Duke, Florida, and FSU. They also might have won games they lost against Eastern Kentucky, Green Bay, and Notre Dame. He was quite the enigma, shooting Miami in and out of games. This season he needs to be more of a distributor and pick and choose his spots to be aggressive. Rodriguez also needs to be solid on D and gamble a little less. All in all though, he is a fearless competitor and if he plays within himself, could be one of the best points in the ACC. With a more confident team around him, watch out for a big bounce back season from the senior from Puerto Rico. He may not have as many games lighting up the scoreboard, but he can be very effective nonetheless.
PF/C Kamari Murphy 6'9 216 (6.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg in 2013-14 with Oklahoma State). The Brooklyn native could end up in the starting line-up eventually, and could also be the surprise of the league with his athleticism, junk yard dog approach, and ability to defend all 5 positions on the floor. He's the kind of player the team was missing last year, and he'll have nights where he scores in double figures with out a single play being called for him. He's nearly as explosive as McClellan dunking as well.
PG/SG/SF James Palmer 6'5 200 Sophomore (3.7 ppg, 1.4 rpg 36% 3P% in 2015-16). Palmer is a very versatile player who can run the point, or play on the wing (though he will likely see his most action behind McClellan/Reed). He's a very good shooter, and can take the ball strong to the basket. Palmer's scoring should improve drastically this season, but he also needs to improve as a defender.
PG Ja'Quan Newton 6'2 185 Sophomore (4.0 ppg, 1.3 rpg, 1.4 apg in 2015-16). Newton is a Philly kid, and former top 50 recruit, who loves taking the ball right into the teeth of the defense. Look for Newton to have quite a few double digit scoring efforts this year, as his jumper should be much better after a long summer working on it. He's also a sound decision maker and a smooth handler. The sky is the limit for Newton going forward.
PG/SG/SF Anthony "Amp" Lawrence Jr. 6'7 185 Freshman. Lawrence is the epitome of a "swiss army knife". He ran the point for his H.S. squad last season, but could see action at the 4 as a frosh in Coral Gables. He's another explosive athlete with a lot of skills. He needs to add bulk to his frame, but could have an impact immediately and work his way into a solid rotation player by season's end.
C/PF Ebuka Izundu 6'10 205 Freshman. Izundu is very athletic, very long, and very raw. I expect him to spell the bigs for periods and focus on rebounding and D. He might also finish some lobs. His offensive game will need time to develop.
G Mike Robinson 5'10 170 Freshman. Walk on player who adds depth.
F Chris Stowell 6'6 190 Sophomore. Another walk on who adds depth.
So that's the roster. And as impressive as it is, questions loom.
Here are some things to look out for as the season progresses.
Keys to the Season/Questions:
#1 Stay Healthy - The 'Canes have just 10 scholarship players, and 2 are freshmen. The top 8 is very good, but they can ill afford too many scratches.
#2 Angel play within himself - Rodriguez can make big shots no doubt. But there is no reason for him to lead the team in shots taken. McClellan, Reed, Jekiri, and maybe even Murphy, are more efficient options. At the same time, they need the ball in his hands to create for his talented teammates. Finding the right balance of when to look for his own shot and when to involve others will be huge for this team. If the other 4 players on the floor are aggressive around him, things should come naturally for Angel.
#3 Style of play - UM showed some 1-2-2 press in their lone exhibition. Murphy and Lawrence looked like terrors pressing the opposition's guards. Will they show it consistently in the regular season? Will they finally unleash Coach L's scramble D in the half court? In my opinion this team is still going to play mostly a lot of hard, aggressive half court man to man D. With the new 30 second shot clock, I do expect them to run more though. And with new assistants like Jamal Brunt and Adam Fisher in the fray, some new looks might be in the cards.
#4 Just how good are they? Are they as good as the 2012-13 ACC Championship team? - They are very good, and have a chance to be even better than the team that cut the nets down in Greensboro. The combination of Cruz Uceda/Murphy is capable of similar production and intangibles as what Kenny Kadji and Julian Gamble gave them 3 years back. The one holdover from that team, Jekiri, is arguably better at the C position. McClellan/Reed/Rodriguez are different than what Shane Larkin and Durand Scott were. And as good as Larkin was, it will be difficult to match that back court. But McClellan and Reed can be a lot like what UVA got last year in Malcolm Brogdon and Justin Anderson. And that's pretty special. Does it mean they will win the ACC again? Not so fast.. The conference is deeper and more talented than what it was in 2012. But they have a shot.
Last but not least, The State of the U staff makes its' predictions on the season to be.
Charlie Strauzer: "My prediction for the regular season is 21-23 wins over all, with 11-13 wins in the ACC. That should be good enough for the Canes to finish 5th or 6th heading into the ACC tournament where I expect UM to win at least 2 games. Depending on how our RPI and SOS shake out I suspect that would translate to the Canes making March Madness as a 6 or 7 seed. When I look at our out of conference schedule, Miami will need to make the finals of the Puerto Rico tournament and at least split the Florida and Nebraska games to impress the committee. Despite losing its two best scorers, the Gator still has three 5 star players in Smith, Robinson and Hill on roster and should give the Canes a game. Ultimately, I think the Canes will win that contest in front of what should be a sold out BankUnited Center. The Canes for the second time in three years head to Lincoln to play Nebraska in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Huskers had a losing record last year but Tim Miles should get his squad to improve, this should be a win but travelling to a hostile environment can set the tone for an upset. Overall, the Canes need to avoid overlooking lesser teams like it did last year if it doesn't want to find itself lobbying last minute for a ticket to the dance".
Josh Kaufman: "I see the 'Canes ending the regular season at 22-8, with 12 wins in the ACC. I can see Miami making a deep run in the ACC Tourney and coming away with a 3 or 4 seed in the NCAA tournament. Look for Tonye Jekiri, Sheldon McClellan, and Davon Reed to lead the way, with Kamari Murphy cleaning up the boards and protecting Jekiri on the defensive end."
Josh Frank: "My predictions fall in line with many other pundits - with my positive insider knowledge and natural cynicism balancing out to something in the creamy middle. Miami enters the year in the "receiving votes" section of the poll, with the team ranked in the 30s according to writers and coaches, which translates into roughly an 8 or 9 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Hurricanes will have limited opportunities to impress the committee in out of conference play, with no marquee ACC/Big 10 game and the only potential preseason top 25 opponent Utah in a Puerto Rico. That means that not only must the Hurricanes avoid disappointment against the low- and mid-major teams that come through the BankUnited Center in November and December, but they must also win the majority of their games against potential bubble teams like Florida, Mississippi State (in Puerto Rico), and Nebraska (on the road) to avoid being compared unfavorably to them on Selection In conference, where familiarity breeds more contemptuous matchups, the Hurricanes have a somewhat favorable schedule in terms of opportunity – the Hurricanes will play every team predicted to finish ahead of them in the conference twice, with the exception of preseason #1 North Carolina on the road and #5 Duke at home. If the Canes can have a winning record against those teams, and get some tricky road wins against predicted bottom-dwellers they only see once like Boston College and Georgia Tech, Miami has the opportunity to exceed their predicted finish.
Due to outstanding coaching and an expected hardened attitude after last year’s bitter postseason disappointments, I would expect the Hurricanes to do just that - to exceed expectations a bit, finish in the top third of the ACC and the bottom end of the top 25, and to be a favored seed (5-7) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Led by four seniors, all of whom have the basketball wherewithal and competitiveness to limit mistakes and win close games, this Hurricanes team should be one of the best that the program has offered in recent years. Anything less than the tournament will be a disappointment. And while I think that making predictions for March is foolish in November, unless you’re a clear top 5 team with the talent to come out ahead of any early-round matchup, I would not be shocked to see this team gel at the right time and make it into the second weekend of the tournament."
Scott Salomon: "Miami will go as far as Angel and Tonye will take them. I see Miami finishing better than expected in the ACC and getting a mid-seed in the NCAA's. The committee might go so far as to give them a better regional based upon the screwing that they got last year by not getting invited."
Jerry Steinberg: Perhaps I am looking through orange and green colored glasses, but I am going all in on this squad. In my ACC Conference preview I picked them to finish second, just behind UNC in the conference regular season. I am standing behind that prediction. This team has a talented starting 5 led by two sensational wings. They have the best returning big in the ACC. They have a deep bench, an X factor in Murphy, and in my opinion the most underrated coach in the country. Big things are going to happen in the BUC this season. In the Big Dance things are such a crap shoot. But if they are healthy and peak at the right time, a special run deep in the tourney is very much a possibility as well.
Thanks to everyone who took the time to read our 2015-16 Miami Hoops Preview. Stay tuned for much more coverage right here on State of the U.