What can Miami fans expect a year after the disappointing 2018-19 season? With a handful of new players and another very tough ACC schedule, there will be challenges the Hurricanes face in 2019-20. Where is UM well set up for the year ahead, and what concerns does coach Jim Larrañaga have before the season’s tip on November 5? Five things stood out from his press conference Tuesday.
Plenty of New Faces
Fans can get ready to see plenty of newer players that haven't before contributed to the program in prior years. In addition to the freshmen class and transfers, returning players Deng Gak and Rodney Miller are seeking breakout seasons.
The newcomers include a “core group of three freshmen, Gak and Keith Stone,” with Gak already having some experience playing for Larrañaga before missing most of last year with a knee injury. Other than Gak, Stone and the other three freshman are brand new.
“We've got a good blend of youthful enthusiasm and veteran experience.”
But the head coach saved some of his biggest praise for Miller.
“I really believe it’s true, if [Miller] can stay healthy, and play at the level that he’s capable of getting to on a regular basis, he may be the most improved player in the ACC.
“You’ve got to start with his conditioning. It was very difficult for him to earn a lot of minutes because he’d get tired very quickly. But he’s lost 45 pounds, he’s gotten considerably stronger...we scrimmaged the other day, for 30 minutes and Rodney played in all 30, that would never have been possible in his first couple of years.”
Stone meanwhile is still not at 100% following a January knee injured suffered against Georgia while playing for the University of Florida last year, but is has been given the green light to fully participate imminently. Miller, Stone and the rest of the newcomers will largely determine how the season plays out for UM.
On a college roster, players come and go each season as a freshmen class replaces the graduating seniors. A level of chemistry is vital to achieve for a team to be successful, and according to Larrañaga, this team is off to a good start.
“Chris [Lykes], DJ [Vasiljevic] and Kam McGusty have bonded very well. I think the trip to Italy helped, those guys played very well together, and they continue to do well in practice,” Larrañaga said. [McGusty] and Miller are roommates, so they're good friends and they play well together, DJ and Rodney have been a good combination in practice.”
Larrañaga describes the current makeup of the team, “a very good foundation” that the younger players need to buy into.
A Need for Defense
Defense continues to be a priority for the Hurricanes. Ever since the departure of Bruce Brown, the defensive side of the court for Miami has seen regression.
“We have a lot of work to do, we’re [still] not a great defensive team,” Larrañaga said, explaining that has been the case “since we lost Brown...when he got hurt in the middle of his sophomore year, we dropped statistically from being one of the better defensive teams in the ACC to one of the worst, and we haven't been able to get back to that position yet.”
Brown started 56 games as a rookie for the Detroit Pistons a season ago, almost exclusively because of his ability to defend the perimeter.
For the first time, the ACC has expended their conference schedule to 20 games. It is an increase from what any of the conference’s players and coaches are used to. The only thing that is for sure known is that each team has a bigger challenge on their hand.
“[We have] one of the most challenging schedules not only in Miami basketball history, but in the history of the ACC. And I say that very honestly without exaggerating, the schedule is ridiculous. When I first got into the league we played 16 conference games, that was 16 really tough games. And then the conference changed and went to 18 games. And now this year we've jumped to 20. And we open the season at home against Louisville who is projected to be top-five in the country.
“We certainly have our challenges, but as any competitor would tell you, they love the challenge of competing against the best, and that’s what we do every night in the ACC.”
With the ACC showing no signs of slowing down, any additional conference games significantly increases the strength of UM’s schedule, and should Miami find themselves on the tournament bubble come March, look for the league to give the Canes that one big bump in the committee’s eyes.
Jim the Storyteller
In the grind of a long season, sometimes players and coaches will need to discover their lighter side. Larrañaga began the press conference with a little tale.
“A coach was trying to figure out his team, and get them to understand, so the coach boiled water in three different pots, in one pot he put carrots, in another pot he put eggs, and in another pot he put coffee beans. And he asked the team afterwards, what happened to the carrots? The carrots went in hard, but came out soft. The eggs went in soft and came out hard. But the coffee beans changed the water, and made the water better...a new cup of coffee.
“What the heck does that even mean,” Larrañaga joked with the media, laughing. “But the idea is simply this, when you ask your team, are we going to be soft? Are we going to be hard? Or are we going to make things better? Are we going to improve, are you as a player going to improve the team?”
Larrañaga went onto say that all the team is looking for right now is improvement, which will be the key thing to look at throughout the season’s ups and downs. Because in such a long season, plenty of both highs and lows will occur.