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Men’s and Women’s Basketball: How High Are Their Hardwood Ceilings This Winter?

The Miami Hurricanes men’s and women’s basketball programs grappled with injury prevention last season, resulting in their early exits from the ACC Tournament. Head coaches Jim Larrañaga and Katie Meier strive to make it a thing of the past this season.

NCAA Basketball: Notre Dame at Miami-Florida
An overview of the Watsco Center prior to an ACC matchup between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Miami Hurricanes on Feb. 6, 2019. (Coral Gables, Fla.)
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Hurricanes men’s and women’s basketball programs have worked relentlessly in their own bubbles at the Watsco Center, while everything both inside and outside their controlled environment appears a tad different.

Coaches wear masks in practice, players sit so distant from each other that they appear separated, and an on-campus march in light of the ongoing Black Lives Matter and voter registration movements have all been on the minds of all.

“I think (given) the flexibility we saw in the football schedule this week in the changes, I’m guessing we’re going to have to make those same type of changes in basketball,” said Miami’s Director of Athletics Blake James, who has already endured a scheduling change for the school’s final three football games due to COVID-19 cases.

James also noted that basketball could potentially be one of the university’s most difficult athletic programs offered this school year, given the close contact

Aside from simmering concerns over potentially rescheduled games and how Canes fans will perceive social justice advocacy approaches, preseason preparation has remained in full swing as both teams will begin competition in an empty Watsco Center later this week.

“For us, the energy needs to come within the team,” said UM women’s basketball coach Katie Meier. The former AP National Coach of the Year will officially begin her 16th season coaching the program on Wednesday against Jacksonville of the Atlantic Sun Conference.

“We have got to play with joy, and we have got to play without feeling burdened. It’s an unburdened time in the two and three hours that we’re together in practice. When we have a chance to share our joy (throughout the season), people are going to want to see us being so grateful and happy to be playing.”

Men’s basketball coach Jim Larrañaga and his team conducted an intrasquad scrimmage on Saturday as a way to prepare his unit for the silence of the Watsco Center, as opposed to the rambunctious crowd of an opponent’s arena like Duke’s or North Carolina’s.

“There will be an adjustment for the players,” Larrañaga told the media last Wednesday. “I do think it can impact the homecourt advantage. But every player on both teams will be dealing with the same thing. You have to be self-motivated; you can’t wait for the crowd to get you going. I’ll also be very curious about the creativity that we see around the league.”

But when both the men’s and women’s programs do in fact step on the hardwood, what will their ceilings resemble for the season? Both teams lost to Clemson in the early frames of the ACC Tournament, after beating both Tigers teams during the regular season.

Meier’s crew lost forward Beatrice Mompremier to the WNBA Draft this spring, while coach Jim Larrañaga’s program saw sharpshooter guard DJ Vasiljevic return to Sydney, Australia, to play professionally in the NBL (National Basketball League) and Keith Stone to compete overseas in Luxembourg.

What both teams do also share is returning talent, however. The men’s team has seven returning players (not including an injured forward in redshirt senior Sam Waardenburg), while the women’s program returns 10 players from last season.

Senior guards including Chris Lykes and Mykea Gray have not trekked past the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament since 2018, when Larrañaga’s team lost to North Carolina and Meier’s fell to Florida State.

Veteran leadership will likely carry both teams to a further finish line than they’ve been accustomed to in recent years, should incoming talent need a full season to adjust to the college level. If you take a look back to that season, men’s basketball had Ja’Quan Newton, Bruce Brown, and Dewan Hernandez, while the Lady Canes retained forwards Keyanna Harris and Erykah Davenport, plus a junior in Beatrice Mompremier.

A similar level of that experience will potentially serve both squads well heading into another season loaded with an additional concentration of ACC games. Women’s basketball opens their season Wednesday with four non-conference teams in Jacksonville, Stetson, North Florida, and Florida Atlantic visiting Coral Gables, Fla. Men’s basketball will face the first of those three opponents, too, with the additions of Stetson and Purdue (ACC/Big Ten Challenge).

Some believe the men’s team will look stronger than what the women will have to offer this winter. Four-star recruits in guard Earl Timberlake and forward Matt Cross have plenty of athleticism and shot-making abilities to potentially help lift the Canes into the upper echelon of the ACC. Such success has not been witnessed since Lonnie Walker and Bruce Brown departed in 2018, when Miami finished in third place (11-7) in the conference.

Though that perception may prove to be valid, Meier’s team has no reason not to believe that their talent infusions can thrive as well. Freshman forward Nyayongah Gony and junior college transfer Naomi Mbandu, a forward originally from France, have brought their work ethic to the gym thus far, and have received praise from the veterans. Miami’s last glimpse of success in March Madness time arose when they hosted the No. 5 seeded Arizona State Sun Devils at the Watsco Center and lost by two points.

Each team’s thirst for regained success in both the ACC and NCAA Tournaments realistically could come to fruition in March, should they be able to finish no lower than fifth in the conference and receive at-large bids. 11 wins (or even an additional one or two) each should do the trick, and remaining healthy will remain of utmost importance, per usual with Miami as the two teams battled injuries last year.

Miami Hurricanes men’s basketball projected record: 17-8 (12-8 ACC)

Miami Hurricanes women’s basketball projected record: 13-11 (9-11 ACC)