After taking care of Wake Forest 87-81 on Wednesday evening, the Canes are now 3-0 since Bruce Brown Jr. left the lineup with a foot injury following Miami’s loss to Florida State. 2 of those wins came against the worst 2 teams in the conference (Pittsburgh and Wake Forest), but between those games Miami picked up a huge road victory against Virginia Tech, who is currently slotted directly behind the Canes in the ACC standings. Coach Larranaga was forced to be creative with his lineup in Brown’s absence, and he has risen to the challenge. Starting with the Pittsburgh matchup, Coach L moved senior guard Ja’Quan Newton back to the bench in favor of freshman Chris Lykes, and both players have looked more comfortable in their roles. Newton’s last 2 games have been 2 of his best, compiling 12 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists against VaTech and 16 points against Wake Forest. Lykes had 13-point 5-assist games against Pittsburgh and Wake Forest. To replace Brown in the lineup, Coach Larranaga brought back Dejan Vasiljevic, who has been on quite the tear lately, averaging 12.8 points per game in his last 4 contests. Anthony Lawrence II has been tough on the inside offensively and defensively, as has Dewan Huell. What has been the most surprising, is the off-the-bench contributions of Sam Waardenburg. After seeing a total of 1 minute in the first 6 ACC contests, Waardenburg has seen a steady uptick in his playing time, as he has been starting to figure out his offensive game (12 points against Wake Forest) while providing quality rim protection. All of these moves were made to facilitate the shift towards Lonnie Walker IV as the focal point of the offense, which has also worked out, as Lonnie has had 8 straight games with double digit scoring.
The back end of the ACC schedule will prove to be very difficult, with games against #2 (about to be #1) ranked Virginia, #21 North Carolina (who just knocked off Duke), the pesky 2-3 zone of Syracuse (a defense we’ve struggled with this season), and another tie with a streaky Virginia Tech team. While it’s unlikely the Canes will finish the rest of their games completely unscathed, it’s very possible for them to win 5 or 6 of their last 7 games. That would leave the Canes’ record at 24-6 or 23-7 and secure a top 4 seed with a bye in the ACC Tournament. Here’s what the Canes need to do to make that a reality:
Return to their defensive identity
Coach Larranaga and the Canes took pride in being one of the best defensive teams in the country during the first half of the season. However the grueling ACC schedule pulled Miami away from that mentality, making them more of a high-paced run-and-gun team. This style worked for some games, but was exposed by Florida State in Miami’s 103-94 loss on 1/27. Since then, Miami has worked to slow the games down, with scores of 69-57, 84-75, and 87-81. Dribble penetration has been a weakness for this defense, so the Canes will need to show more discipline on shot fakes and maintaining their assignments if they want to put up solid defensive showings against Virginia and North Carolina.
Play through Anthony Lawrence II and Lonnie Walker IV
Lonnie Walker IV and Anthony Lawrence II have been the Canes most reliable players on the offensive and defensive ends. What often leaves Miami vulnerable to giving up big leads (like against Wake Forest on Wednesday) is when the Canes go 4 to 5 minutes without the ball touching one or both of the players hands. Chris Lykes and Ja’Quan Newton need to make sure they don’t become ball stoppers when they are on the floor, and DJ Vasiljevic and Dewan Huell need to trust that they will get their opportunities within the flow of the game and not force bad shots. After Amp’s huge game against Virginia Tech (25 points on 9/10 shooting, 13 rebounds), the Canes seemed to forget about him, as he only attempted 4 shots on Wednesday, ending the game with 4 points. Yes Miami still won the game, but it was a game that shouldn’t have been close, and Wake Forest had opportunities down the stretch.
Get to the free throw line and make free throws
One thing Miami has done extremely well since Bruce Brown Jr’s departure is get to the free throw line. In the last three games the Canes have a huge advantage in free throw attempts, 83-35. Even at the Canes sub par free throw percentage (66% as a team), that is a huge hole for opponents to climb out of each game. In those 3 games, the Canes have had a 12 point cushion on average from free throws alone. Considering all 3 games were decided by 12 points or less, the free throw discrepancy makes a huge difference. When Virginia and North Carolina come to town, that advantage could be just what the Canes need to win those big games.
What else do you think could help the Canes make an end-of-season run? Let us know in the comments.