Head coach Jim Larranaga and the University of Miami men’s basketball program will venture into uncharted territory when the 2019-20 campaign officially tips off next month.
For the first time since Larranaga’s arrival in 2011, the Hurricanes are coming off a losing season in 2018-19. Moreover, last year marked just the second time that Miami didn’t qualify for a postseason tournament (2013-14) under Coach L.
Needless to say, this coming season will present Larranaga with one of the toughest assignments of a coaching career that’s on the doorstep of its sixth decade. Miami’s disappointing 2018-19 season marked Coach L’s first losing record since going 9-18 in year one at George Mason in 1997-98. In year two, Larranaga’s Patriots rebounded with a 19-11 mark, a conference title and an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Unfortunately, bouncing back to the tune of 10-plus wins in a talent-laden Atlantic Coast Conference will pose a challenge that Larranaga didn’t face in the Colonial Athletic Association.
And for the most part, the media agrees.
The Canes were picked to finish ninth in the ACC -- which is an improvement of two spots from its 11th place finish a year ago -- but that will likely leave them as one of the “first-out” among the NCAA Tournament’s bubble teams. Last year, seven ACC teams reached the Big Dance, with nine teams going dancing in each of the previous two seasons. Prior to its record number of nine selections in 2017 and 2018, the previous high-water mark for the conference was seven selections in 2007, 2009 and 2016.
Still, the reputation of Larranaga has many believing in a slight turnaround from a 2018-19 season that was hampered by the early suspension, and eventual ineligibility, of star big man Dewan Hernandez.
This year, Miami must replace the loss of three-year starter Anthony Lawrence (13 ppg, 7 rpg), along with Ebuka Izundu (12 ppg, 8 rpg) and Zach Johnson (12 ppg). But still, Coach L returns a solid backcourt to surround preseason Second Team All-ACC selection Chris Lykes (16 ppg, 3 apg).
Lykes, a 5-foot-7 guard from Maryland started all 32 games for Miami last season and is the ACC’s second-highest returning scorer behind Louisville’s Jordan Nwora. Playing alongside Miami’s spark plug point guard is the sharpshooting Australian, DJ Vasiljevic (12 ppg), who shot 37-percent from long distance last season.
Joining Lykes and Vasiljevic in the backcourt is Kam McGusty, an Oklahoma transfer who is eligible this season after starting 25 games in Norman as a sophomore, two seasons ago. Another transfer guard is Keith Stone, a former Gator that is coming off an ACL injury in January. A graduate transfer, Stone (6 ppg, 4 rpg last year ) is eligible immediately and should make an impact as soon as the Deerfield Beach native is healthy.
Despite the losses of Lawrence and Izundu, the Canes’ frontcourt has experience with junior Sam Waardenburg, who made 11 starts and averaged 25 minutes a game last season. The 6-10 New Zealander provides Miami with an inside-outside threat, hitting 38-percent of his threes and 77-percent of his free throws.
Also returning are centers Deng Gak and Rodney Miller, who should both see increased minutes. The 6-10 Gak was the 16th rated power forward in his class but was redshirted in 2017-18, then suffered a season-ending knee injury on Dec. 1 of last year. Prior to going down, Gak was averaging 15 minutes-per with one start.
Meanwhile, the 7-foot Miller was redshirted last year after playing 15 games as a sophomore in 2017-18. A 4-star recruit out of high school, Miller participated in the 2014 Nike Elite 100.
As for the Hurricanes fresh out of high school, Larranaga will have a solid crop of freshmen at his disposal this winter.
Highlighting the recent recruiting class is 6-4 combo guard Harlond Beverly. Out of Montverde Academy, Beverly was a 4-star recruit and the ninth ranked combo guard in America. Originally from Michigan, Beverly transferred to Florida’s Montverde Academy, the former stomping grounds of D’Angelo Russell, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
Another highly touted combo guard in the class is 6-3 Isaiah Wong. The 4-star recruit was ranked as the No. 12 point guard by Rivals and the No. 16 shooting guard by ESPN.
Rounding out the class is 6-9 forward Anthony Walker out of Brewster, New Hampshire - the same school that produced Donovan Mitchell. A 4-star prospect by ESPN and the No. 33 power forward in the nation, Walker chose Miami over Kansas, Maryland and Pittsburgh, among others.
Additionally, Larranaga’s Canes added Cincinnati transfer Nysier Brooks (8 ppg, 6 rpg), who will sit out this season per NCAA transfer rules.
The returning experience in the backcourt, combined with the injection of youth should provide Larranaga with enough ammo to keep Miami near the top-eight in the ACC, and in contention for an NCAA berth. The biggest question mark, however, could be depth as an injury at an inopportune moment could easily derail the season.
With six ACC players selected in last summer’s NBA Draft lottery, there could be room for an outsider to crash the three-team party (Duke, UNC, UVA) that’s sat atop the conference in recent years. Unfortunately for Canes fans, many feel that team will be Louisville. And with Florida State and NC State on the rise, the Canes are likely more than a year away from contending for one of the four double-byes in the conference tournament.
With road games at Clemson, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech the Canes should pick up the ACC road win that eluded them last season. The biggest remaining question mark is tightening up a defense that allowed the most points (71.1) during Larranaga’s tenure in Coral Gables.
It’s a safe bet to assume Miami will improve on its winless road record inside the ACC. One can also guarantee that Larranaga will place an emphasis on boosting his team’s defensive effort, as well.
“It’s all about guys working together, identifying your role, and making a great contribution to the team effort,” Larranaga said at Operation Basketball Media Day, earlier this month. “Whether you are a veteran player like DJ and Chris, who really know their role because they’ve been doing it for a long time, or a freshman who comes in and has to learn what his role is going to be, it’s all about teamwork,”
The good news: Larranaga has not suffered consecutive losing seasons since 1991-92 and 1992-93, during his days at Bowling Green.
The bad: The Canes are still probably two years away. The last time one of Larranaga’s Miami squads didn’t reach the NCAA Tournament, they failed to qualify the following year, despite advancing to the finals of the 2015 NIT.
In 2016, they went on two win 27 games and reach the Sweet 16.
NCAA Tournament, NIT or neither? We will see when Miami’s season gets underway on Oct. 30 with an exhibition vs Flagler. The first official game is Nov. 5 vs the previously mentioned Louisville at the Watsco Center in Coral Gables. While Louisville is a conference game, the ACC gauntlet won’t get underway until a New Year’s Eve showdown at Clemson.
Miami’s complete schedule is available here: https://hurricanesports.com/schedule.aspx?path=mbball