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Canes Hoops: Dominant, but not Flawless

The ‘Canes have convincingly forged their way to a 3-0 start, but there is still need for improvement

Nov 16, 2017; Coral Gables, FL, USA; Miami Hurricanes guard Anthony Lawrence II (3) shoots from the three throw line during the second half against Florida A&M Rattlers at Watsco Center. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The ‘Canes have sprinted out to a convincing 3-0 start, with all three victories coming by more than 30 points. A variety of players have gotten into the mix on the offensive end, which showcases the balanced and exciting repertoire of scorers, both inside and outside, that this team brings to the court every night. Ja’Quan Newton is averaging 14 points per game to lead all ‘Canes, which, for a team that is averaging 85 a game, shows you how many different players really are contributing.

In the opener it was Ebuka Izundu and Dewan Huell who led the way, putting up 14 each, while Bruce Brown Jr. recorded his second career triple-double, and scored 10. However, not everyone had a great premiere, as sharpshooter Dejan Vasiljevic shot an abysmal 2-12 from the field, including 1-10 from 3-point land. But in the very next game, Brown struggled, uncharacteristically shooting a meager 1-10 and scoring just 3 points. This time it was Vasiljevic’s turn to pick up the slack, and that he did, scoring 16 points to lead all ‘Canes. This is what is expected from the ‘Canes this season. If someone has an off night, the next player is ready to step up and take over. The bench has been fantastic, displaying their incredible depth, and producing an average of 29 points per game. Everything has looked good so far for the ‘Canes, but as dominant as they’ve been, this ‘Canes team is not without flaws. Let’s take a look at some of the areas of worry.

Are injuries really flaws? No, but they are still a major cause of concern for any team, even if they can’t always be prevented. How many of you reached for your chest and let out an audible gasp when Lonnie Walker IV fell to the hardwood and began pounding his fist in agony? I know I did, and judging by the look on Chris Lykes’ face as he walked toward the bench, it was clear he assumed the worst as well. Walker did not return to the game, but thankfully for the ‘Canes it was nothing more than a bad ankle roll. Coach L expects Walker to be ready for next Wednesday’s game in Reading, PA (where Walker played his high school ball) against the La Salle Explorers. Walker is averaging 7.7 points off the bench this season, and it looks like we’re just barely scratching the surface of his potential. Losing Walker for an extended period of time would have been a huge hit for the ‘Canes, as replacing talent like that is nearly impossible. Staying healthy is so important, even on a team as deep as the ‘Canes. Hopefully, Walker’s ankle roll is the biggest scare we get all season.

Now for the fixable flaws, that the ‘Canes are displaying early on. For all the balance the team displays in scoring, the ‘Canes defense has a tendency to look a bit lackadaisical. While they’re only giving up 53 points per game, there are moments where the defense looks to be complacent and already thinking about the next time they’ll have the ball on offense. Being straightforward, the ‘Canes looked sloppy and sluggish for the final 20 minutes of Thursday night’s game against Florida A&M. The Rattlers were able to just about keep pace with the ‘Canes, as they put up 37 points after the break. This was by far the worst half of defense the ‘Canes have played so far this season. Granted, it’s hard to stay focused when you’re up by 24 heading into the half, but for a team that started so hot, it would have been nice to see the ‘Canes put together a full game and play sound, fundamental defense for a full 40 minutes. Because think about it: if the ‘Canes are up by 24 on an ACC opponent and then get lazy, like they did on Thursday, they’re going to find themselves playing catch-up in no time. Coach L is a great defensive coach and should have this problem sorted out in no time, but it is on the players to execute and stay focused no matter how much of a lead they have.

And focus leads me to the absolute biggest worry for the ‘Canes: free throw shooting. The way the ‘Canes are performing at the charity stripe is inexcusable. As a team they are shooting 50.8%, which includes Vasiljevic who has yet to miss. Bruce Brown is 2-9(!) and Anthony Lawrence Jr is 1-6(!). This is something that absolutely needs to be fixed before the ‘Canes head into ACC play. Right now, it’s barely noticeable. Against Florida A&M the ‘Canes missed 12 free throws and still won by 31. But in a close contest against Duke or UNC, when free throws decide the game, the ‘Canes are going to need every point they can get. Just ask the 2007-2008 Memphis Tigers who finished the season 38-2, shooting 61.4% from the Free Throw line (329th in the country, and still 11.4% higher than the ‘Canes are shooting now). During the regular season, free throws were rarely a factor for the Tigers, who lost just once, to the then #2 Tennessee Volunteers. But on Championship night, the Tigers held a lead and simply needed to make their free throws in order to ice the game. With just seconds left Derrick Rose went 1-2 from the stripe, which left the door open for one of the greatest shots in NCAA tournament history, when Mario Chalmers sent the game to OT. If Memphis makes just one more free throw they find themselves champions instead of runner-ups. The ‘Canes need to learn from this and really focus when they get a chance for easy points.

Look, this ‘Canes team is playing well, winning convincingly and showing that on any given night anyone can step up. But the defense needs to tighten up, and if the ‘Canes expect to make it deep into March the free throw shooting MUST get better. After the scare that Walker put in all our hearts, it’s good to see that the ‘Canes are still completely healthy. When you play in the ACC no season will ever be worry free, but if the ‘Canes can clean up their flaws and stay healthy, then maybe this season will have a little less worry than previous ones.