Bruce Brown Jr. Lonnie Walker IV. Ja’Quan Newton. Dewan Huell. Whether by the NBA Draft or senior status, four of the Canes’ top six scorers will be leaving the program for (hopefully) greener pastures. With so much firepower and top-level talent leaving, Coach Larranaga and staff will have their work cut out for them once November rolls around. The biggest question however, and one that Coach L can’t gameplan for, is who will be the team’s leader.
Last year, Miami had an incredibly young nucleus, unusual for a team that is typically built on the experience of juniors, seniors and transfers. 2018 will be a return to the type of team that Coach L has been used to; no big-name recruits but some solid veterans moving up with the addition of a transfer. That transfer, a graduate from Florida Gulf Coast, is guard Zach Johnson. Like Sheldon McClellan and Angel Rodriguez before him, Johnson could become the experienced leader that is new to the team but not new to big-game basketball. Don’t forget that FGCU has been to the tourney the past two years, with Johnson as their second-leading scorer.
On the roster, there are several players who seem well-positioned to fill the team leader role. Anthony Lawrence II might be considered the favorite to transition to a bigger and more vocal-role in 2018. A junior last year, Lawrence has seen playing time since he stepped on campus and has developed into a solid if unspectacular “glue” player.
AL2 has seen his stats increase in every category each year, and another jump could be expected this coming season since he will need to carry a larger usage burden. Lawrence has proven capable of being able to pull down rebounds, be a secondary playmaker, guard the perimeter and be a reliable catch-and-shoot three point shooter. But to be the #1 option, Lawrence will have to prove he can be a consistent scoring threat, night in and night out.
The underdog his entire career, Chris Lykes is anything but in this competition. Call it moxie, toughness, attitude, whatever your word or phrase for it is. Lykes has it and he has it in surplus. The least-hyped of his freshmen teammates last year, Lykes caught fire in the second half of the year and proved to be the Canes’ most consistent scorer, especially when Bruce Brown went down with injury.
Lykes is already a tremendous offensive player, possessing a polished shooting stroke and exciting playmaking ability. To take the next step, the sophomore will have to show a little more awareness and consistency on defense. His size will always be a detriment but he has the speed, quickness and attitude to be a pest for opposing point guards. Miami has had a great, recent tradition of mighty-mite alpha dogs and Lykes could very well be the next one.
From two perimeter players to a big man, Ebuka Izundu doesn’t have the reputation of being a vocal leader but he fits the mold of a blue-collar worker. Izundu has gotten better every season and last year proved to be a capable starting center, even while the Canes’ young talent saw them shift to small ball lineups. While Izundu would be categorized as more of the “lead by example” type of captain, his reliability to bang on the inside and do the dirty work is the sort of thing that endears a big man to his teammates. He may not be the guy leading the pre-game hype but don’t discount his ability to be a leader and role model for his teammates.
As the summer turns to fall and this team gets comfortable with each other, though there are not many new faces the lineup change may make it feel like a new squad, the leaders and go-to guys will start to develop. If you want my two cents, I think Lawrence and Lykes will split leadership duty and each become a big part of keeping the Canes going. I wouldn’t be surprised if the elder Lawrence takes on the role of keeping the team even-keeled while Lykes gets them fired up and ready to give everything they have each night. And if Coach Larranaga can get that, things will be fine for a team undergoing so much change in just one year.