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CanesHoops: The Season of Unfortunate Events

With this Canes Hoops season finally in the books, let’s look back and then glimpse into the future

NCAA Basketball: Clemson at Miami-Florida Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

While Miami played more competitively than would be expected against some conference big guns like UNC, their lack of depth was ultimately too much to overcome, as the Canes finished the regular season 13-17 (5-13 ACC) and won a hard fought opening round game vs. Wake Forest in the ACC Tournament before running into a “Buzz” saw in Virginia Tech the next round. Surprisingly, the Canes finished 11th in the ACC after the media predicted them to finish 10th in the preseason poll. However, this is not how anyone in the program or fanbase envisioned the season ending when the school year began.

Even following two high-profile NBA defections, many expected that 2018-19 would still be a decent season for the University of Miami basketball team. The Jim Larrañaga-led Canes were coming off a heartbreaking March Madness loss to a Loyola-Chicago team that, to quote other famous residents of their fair state, was “on a mission from God”. After being maligned (and apparently falsely accused) as part of the adidas recruiting scandal, any reference to Miami was eventually redacted from the indictment during the trial. To better understand what transpired related to the investigation here’s a brief timeline:

September 26, 2017 -- The adidas scandal story broke as Miami was implicated as “University-7” in the original indictment for an alleged scheme involving payment to 5-star recruit and eventual North Carolina signee Nassir Little.

The untold story is that within days, several recruits, including top 100 players Saddiq Bey, Eric Ayala and Jalen Carey either recently visited or were set to visit Miami. The Hurricanes were widely considered to be strong contenders, if not frontrunners, for all three athletes – but all would commit elsewhere, including Bey and Carey to rival ACC Schools. With so much uncertainty surrounding the program, Miami was left without a single commitment in the early signing period.

October 23, 2017 -- Larrañaga says he believes he’s the “Coach 3” cited in the initial court documents but publicly denies any wrongdoing, vowing continued cooperation with the probe.

February 12, 2018 -- Charges against Nassir’s AAU coach Brad Augustine were dropped after he admitted that he lied to adidas about Larrañaga and Little having having knowledge of the payment scheme, with him allegedly planning to keep any money that changed hands for himself.

With it becoming clearer that Miami would be exonerated, the Hurricanes staff scrambled and locked down three transfers in April – fifth-year graduate transfer and Miami native Zach Johnson, freshman (eligible with a health waiver) Anthony Mack, and sit out transfer Kam McGusty, who would have two years of eligibility.

October 22, 2018 – All references to Miami and Larrañaga are officially redacted from the records of the investigation during the trial, which many saw as bittersweet vindication.

Though the damage had been done to last year’s recruiting class, the program hoped to build for the next year with on-court success. At the end of the 2018 season, Miami lost Ja’Quan Newton to graduation and Bruce Brown and Lonnie Walker to the NBA draft. With transfers Johnson and Mack immediately eligible, Miles Wilson eligible after transferring from Mount St. Mary’s the previous summer, and Deng Gak available after a redshirt year, there were reinforcements on the horizon even without new true freshmen. Chris Lykes and Sam Waardenburg, a year removed from their freshmen years, were both expected to be big contributors. Dewan Hernandez (formerly Huell) was back and expected to impress as the next Miami Hurricane to find his name called by the NBA. Add in four other upperclassmen (seniors Anthony Lawrence II and Ebuka Izundu and juniors DJ Vasiljevic and Rodney Miller), and the Hurricanes were expected to be 11 deep for the 2018-19 campaign.

The rotation began to take hits just as practice was ready to commence. The first was when Miles Wilson, a potential starter, was dismissed for “not meeting team expectations”. With the frontline still intact, Miami announced in early November that junior center Rodney Miller would redshirt. Just one week later, Miami announced that Dewan Hernandez would be held out of competition while his eligibility was reviewed.

To make matters worse, after starting with just eight rotation players and struggling to an 8-4 record against a mediocre non-conference slate, the team lost Deng Gak to a season ending knee injury in December. With an NCAA berth looking perhaps like a long shot already, and the coaching staff optimistic about the return of Hernandez, Miller remained in redshirt status and the Hurricanes went into ACC play with just seven scholarship players. After several seeming optimistic turns, the NCAA ruled in late January that Hernandez was ineligible for the entire season, plus 40 percent of his would be senior year, stating that he’d “agreed to receive monthly payments from an agent and accepted other benefits from the individual.”

Putting this season in the rear view mirror, next year looks brighter (it pretty much has to). Despite losing Lawrence, Izundu, and Johnson to graduation, Miami will add three players with transfer McGusty and top 150 recruits Isaiah Wong and Anthony Walker. Additionally, the coaching staff is hopeful for a leaner and quicker Rodney Miller to contribute in the middle and Gak should be 100% healthy. Barring any further additions, Miami should have nine players available, and expect for Larrañaga and his staff to try to add additional freshmen as well as tapping the transfer market again.

Currently, Miami is aggressively pursuing 4-star combo guard Harlond Beverly, who has stood out playing with a host of Division I recruits at the prestigious Montverde Academy in Florida. Beverly is taking his first official visit to Coral Gables the weekend of March 15, and the Hurricanes hope to impress the Midwest native. The Hurricanes are also in hot pursuit of Tristan Enaruna, a four-star wing from the Netherlands via Utah. Both athletes showed dramatic improvement in big spotlights this year, getting them on high-major radar screens and top 100 rankings. Beverly and Enaruna face off in the first round of the GEICO Nationals next month. Last week Miami offered 6’ 10” Iowa Western Community College center, Emmanuel “Manny” Ugboh who has picked up nearly half dozen high major offers in the past few weeks. Ugboh hails from Nigeria and would likely garner extensive minutes if he chose to join the Canes in the fall. Check out the highlights of all three below.

Under Larrañaga, Miami has had tremendous success with transfers such as Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan. On the Hurricane Hotline radio show, Coach L stated that the team would like to add one immediately eligible graduate transfer and one “sit out” transfer who would be eligible in the 2019-20 season. This process typically picks up in April, particularly after coaching changes are made.

Hopefully, the Hurricanes staff will continue to add new faces to a newly turned over roster and begin to reestablish themselves as an NCAA tournament contender.

A special end of the year tip of the hat to CanesHoops consigliere, Josh Frank aka @joshdacane for his insights and editing skills.