The start of the season has gone according to plan for the No. 11-ranked Miami Hurricanes men’s basketball team. They’ve played three teams they are superior to and they’ve blown all three of them out.
Miami will face one true test during the non-conference schedule, a November 29 trip to face the Minnesota Golden Gophers in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Golden Gophers are undefeated and currently ranked No. 14 in the country.
Before that, the Canes will go up to Reading, Penn. to face LaSalle on Wednesday, November 22 in a homecoming for super freshman Lonnie Walker IV, who starred at Reading High School. Then, Miami will come back home to Coral Gables and host in-state foe North Florida the day after Thanksgiving.
But despite a start that has seen the Hurricanes win by an average of 32.3 points per game (85.3-53), there are a few things that Jim Larrañaga’s squad will need to get cleaned up before the game against Minnesota as well as the start of conference play in the juggernaut ACC. Especially if Miami plans on being the conference and national contender that they and others think they can be.
One of the glaring struggles for the Canes so far has been free throw shooting. Through three games, Miami is shooting 50.8 percent from the stripe. That’s not simply bad for a good team. It’s bad, period. Awful, really. That number ranks Miami 348th out of 351 Division I teams (only Cal-State Fullerton, Portland State and Cleveland State are worse).
Not much to say about how it needs to get better, but it quite simply cannot stay that bad. This is something that won’t hurt Miami against a fairly tame non-conference schedule. But in big games, the inability to convert free throws into points will definitely come back and hurt the Canes. Bruce Brown Jr. is shooting 2-of-9 (22.2 percent), Anthony Lawrence II is 1-of-6 (16.7 percent), and Ja’Quan Newton, while a little better, is still only 10-of-16 (62.5 percent). That has to improve.
Another key factor that the Hurricanes need to keep an eye on is the health of Walker IV. The freshman has been steady but not spectacular to start the season, coming off the bench to average 7.7 points, two rebounds and two assists per game. He came off of meniscus surgery to his right knee over the summer and it seems like he’s shaken that off. But early on in Miami’s win over Florida A&M, Walker IV sprained his left ankle and never returned to the game. Larrañaga said that he will be able play against LaSalle, which is very encouraging.
Thinking long-term, Miami will need Walker IV to continually improve this season for the Canes to get to where they want to be. It remains to be seen whether he will eventually work his way into the starting lineup or stay on the bench. But he provides an combination of size and skill to the Hurricanes’ backcourt that they don’t get with Brown, Newton, or players like D.J. Vasiljevic and Chris Lykes. If they want to make a mark at the top of the ACC and in the NCAA Tournament, Walker IV needs to be healthy and productive.
While Brown Jr. has been good all-around for the Canes (9.3 points per game and a team-leading 8.3 rebounds and 6.7 assists per game), his scoring has left a lot to be desired early on. As mentioned earlier, he is only shooting just over 22 percent from the free throw line. He is also shooting the same percentage from three-point range and 41.4 percent from the field. Most of the bad shooting came against Navy, a three-point performance in which Brown Jr. shot 1-of-10 from the field and 0-of-3 from behind the arc.
Again, Miami can get by with this for the majority of non-conference play. But this doesn’t feel like a “get by” type of season for the Canes. Right now, four players average double-digit scoring for Miami. Brown Jr. is just below that threshold.
The improvements don’t need to all come at once, but they do need to come. If and when they do, you will see a scary good and probably great Canes basketball team.