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The Hurricanes Endured an Up-and-Down Season Last Winter and Are Ready to Hit the Hardwood Running

The Miami Hurricanes started off their season holding an 8-3 record heading into ACC play, but were once again hampered by injuries to top performers in Chris Lykes and Kameron McGusty, as well as Deng Gak for the second consecutive year. Jim Larrañaga’s program has nonetheless learned its share of lessons on winning, alongside their addition of talent and depth.

NCAA Basketball: Miami-Florida at Notre Dame
Hurricanes coach Jim Larrañaga relays instruction to his players in the first half against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Purcell Pavilion (South Bend, Ind.).
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Despite no official schedule having been released for the 2020-2021 Miami Hurricanes’ season, the program looks to rebound strongly after finishing tied for 10th place in the ACC standings last March.

Similar to the prior season, Canes fans watched the team lose games with an onset of injuries to key players including guard Kameron McGusty (a 2021 NBA Draft prospect) as well as forwards Keith Stone and Sam Waardenburg, who will now miss this season having suffered a foot injury. Guard Chris Lykes also encountered a groin injury mid-season and a face injury prior to the ACC Tournament.

Finishing 7-13 in the conference is nothing for a program like Miami’s to hang their hat on, having been avalanched by blue blood teams like Duke with two, 30-point defeats in both meetings.

That is not to say all 13 losses were washouts, however. A handful were pure nail biters, serving as reminders for how detrimental mental lapses can be in late-game situations. Many recall the 79-83 overtime loss to ninth-ranked Florida State suffered at home on Jan. 18, a contest that initially saw the Hurricanes ahead by 13 points with nine minutes remaining in the second half.

And then there were the games where coach Jim Larrañaga’s unit resembled the mighty Miami Hurricanes of old, having won an ACC Championship in 2013 and advancing to two Sweet 16 games. Blowout wins against opponents including Wake Forest and Boston College in mid-February were certainly a reviver, but a 102-95 triple-overtime win against Virginia Tech at Cassell Coliseum breathed even more life into the locker room.

More importantly, the latter reminded the Canes how vital mental toughness and trust remain against some of America’s top teams, with countless overtime games that end with a margin of five points or fewer. Larrañaga stated after the fatiguing battle that they “expect every ACC game to be a struggle and then you just have to find a way.”

The rest of the season brought a mixed bag. The following game would result in a 16-point loss at the hands of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., as Miami allowed Fighting Irish forward John Mooney a double-double and guard T.J. Gibbs to can five of six 3-point shots. Two games later would bring another heartbreaking loss, losing 44–46 to the No. 22 Virginia Cavaliers at home. The Canes would prevail against the Syracuse Orange three days later with a four-point overtime win at the Watsco Center to close out the regular season.

The program would soldier on into the ACC Tournament as the No. 9 seed and would face a No. 8 Clemson team led by forward Aamir Simms and guard Tevin Mack. The Tigers were more than hungry for revenge having lost to the Canes by five in overtime at Littlejohn Coliseum on New Year’s Eve.

21 points from Lykes, who averaged over 15 points per game, and 17 points from guard DJ Vasiljevic would not suffice with the second-round contest ending in favor of Clemson by five. The winner would face top-seeded Florida State in the quarterfinals, only for it to be canceled due to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

With another rollercoaster season in the books, the Canes knew they could have had another crack at beating the Seminoles with the leadership they had from Vasiljevic and Stone, besides Larrañaga’s empowering voice.

“When we recruit, we really recruit role models, kids that not only we would want to coach, but that out our university would be very proud of and community would be very proud of them, both on the court and off the court,” Larrañaga said of Vasiljevic and Stone. “They’ve got great attitudes. They’ve got a great work ethic. They behave in a first-class manner.”

Attitude, class, and commitment to the program has remained something Larrañaga has preached since his arrival to Coral Gables in 2011. Miami has surely seen better days from a success standpoint though what has not wavered is the talent that has gravitated to UM, given the commitments of four-star recruits in guards Earl Timberlake and Matt Cross.

So, now what? With just shy of a month until the school and its fans really see what the team with added depth and star power is made of, coach Larrañaga and his coaching staff have been preparing under radically different conditions than normal. COVID-19 has overshadowed how college basketball will be scheduled and operated this winter, and the health and safety of all will be of utmost importance.

The team’s two newcomers will nonetheless be heavily relied upon for offensive production, in addition to rebounding. Guards Harlond Beverly and Isaiah Wong will be critical to the success of the program, after impressive freshman campaigns. Forward Anthony Walker and transfer center Nysier Brooks will have to step up to fill the absence of Waardenburg, as the team already lacked consistent rebounding and shot blocking.

With already a storied coaching career in his back pocket, Larrañaga looks to celebrate his 10th season at UM with an improved ACC record in addition to a potentially deep March Madness run.