Miami has taken care of business through the first 2 weeks of the season, going 4-0 outscoring their opponents by an average of 27 points per game. In college basketball (as is often the case in football) the first few games serve as somewhat of a preseason, where most top level programs play lesser competition with the intention of working through different gameplans and getting most of the players some minutes. As the calendar approaches December, teams will ramp up the level of competition with tournaments and larger programs in order to prepare for conference play. Miami is almost to the second tier of their non-conference schedule, with one more game against a small program on Saturday against North Florida before taking part in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge against #14 Minnesota. Playing against teams such as Gardner-Webb and Florida A&M will mask some deficiencies, but last night's game against La Salle brought up some question marks that will need to be addressed before the start of ACC play.
How do we avoid slow starts and lulls offensively?
Miami trailed for the majority of the first half against La Salle while going periods of 2:12, 3:18, 3:25, 3:46, and 3:40 between baskets. Coach Larranaga has stated that he wants the Canes to average 75 points per game this season, and scoring 19 points in the first half is not a great way to accomplish that. Miami has done a great job on the defensive end, allowing only 51.3 points per game, but when the Dukes and North Carolinas of the world come to town, the Canes need to be able to score consistently. With the success Dewan Huell and Ebuka Izundu have had scoring inside (Huell is the Canes leading scorer so far and was 8-10 from the field last night), one would think it would be a great place to start the game on offense. Huell did not have a field goal attempt until 4 minutes into the game, and that was from behind the arc. The Canes heavily relied on jumpers, and their offensive struggles were clearly outlined in the fact that their exterior players shot a combined 10 for 43 (23%) from the field. Going inside-out should give our backcourt better scoring opportunities.
Does Sam Waardenburg deserve more minutes?
After missing the first 3 games recovering from a back injury, freshman Sam Waardenburg contributed 7 points off the bench in just 13 minutes on 3 of 6 shooting. The 6'9" forward showed an ability to stretch the floor hitting his only shot from behind the arc. His skill set would complement the play of Dewan Huell and Ebuka Izundu. Although Waardenburg was surely limited in his first game back, his return likely means that minutes will have to be taken away from the other bigs and Anthony Lawrence II, all of whom have established roles in the rotation. Considering that the front court has been Miami's best performing position group so far this season, Coach L has to be careful when shuffling these players around.
Are we getting enough out of Lonnie Walker IV?
First let's take a moment to appreciate the support our star freshman received in his hometown on Wednesday:
Lonnie struggled on Wednesday (as did all of our guards) finishing with 5 points on 2 of 8 shooting along with 2 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 steals. On the year, the Reading, PA product is averaging 7 points, 2 rebounds, and 2 assists per game on 45% from the field and 28% from 3. The young guard is only 4 games into his collegiate career, but with all the buzz and NBA Draft stock, Walker will always be highly scrutinized. I wouldn't say that the highest ranked recruit in Miami Basketball history is underperforming, but as with many of the members of this years team, Walker needs to develop some consistency. Against the level of competition the Canes have faced so far, Walker should be able to have his way with any perimeter defender due to his superior athleticism. I would like to see Lonnie take advantage of his matchups more often before ACC play, when he'll be called upon to be a more reliable scorer off of the bench.
Is our current breakdown sustainable?
As I've stated before, the front court has been leading the team in terms of production. The very early season MVP would be sophomore Dewan Huell, who leads the Canes in scoring at 13.5 points per game on 72% shooting. Huell is also pulling in a respectable 7.5 boards per game, while anchoring the defense with 1.3 blocks and 1 steal per game. Ebuka Izundu makes sure there's no lapse in production for the front court off of the bench, scoring 8.3 points per game on 78% shooting, 5.5 boards per game and a team-leading 1.5 blocks per game. Mid-majors and smaller programs are much less likely to have talented big men as opposed to what we'll see in the ACC, so it's likely that some of the numbers from Huell and Izundu come back to earth a bit. That doesn't mean the front court can't still be a strength of this team, but in order to maintain our 78 points per game team scoring output, the Canes will need better production from their back court. Ja'Quan Newton is putting up 11.5 points per game on 47% shooting, but continues to struggle with turnovers with a .65 assist/turnover ratio. Bruce Brown Jr has been better with the ball, dishing out 5.8 assists per game, and he has been stuffing the stat sheet with a team-leading 9 boards per game, and just under 1 steal per game. The sophomore 2nd team preseason All-ACC selection has been struggling shooting the ball, with only 8.8 points per game on just 36% from the field. Brown will have to start scoring more for the Canes to keep pace with the top of the ACC. Increased scoring from DJ Vasiljevic and Amp Lawrence should help replace the contributions from departed players Davon Reed and Kamari Murphy, but we will still need Newton and Brown to step up on the offensive end to push the Canes to postseason success.
On the defensive end, Miami has been stellar this season, allowing only 51.3 points per game on 34% shooting. It's even more encouraging that in what looked to be Miami's toughest test so far, the Canes only allowed 46 points on 28% shooting to a scrappy La Salle team from underrated Atlantic 10 conference. The effort and execution on the defensive end has been consistent so far, and that shouldn't be overlooked. Strong defense has been a pillar of every Jim Larranaga team, and that won't change with this group.
A 4-0 start and a #11 ranking 2 weeks into the season is nothing to complain about. It's a long season, and hopefully the Canes can continue to develop to sustain their success through the rest of 2017, with the hopes of a big finish in 2018.