After witnessing senior forward Sam Waardenburg suffer a season-ending foot injury in a late-October preseason practice, Miami head coach Jim Larrañaga eventually realized that the injuries would keep on flowing, a sight seen far too often over the last two seasons in Coral Gables, Florida.
The Hurricanes’ 2020-2021 campaign began on Nov. 29 with a victory over the North Florida Ospreys of the Atlantic Sun Conference, but freshman guard Earl Timberlake, a four-star recruit in the 2020 signing class, wore street clothes and a walking boot on the sidelines. That following Friday, senior guard Chris Lykes, a Preseason All-ACC Team honoree, sprained his ankle in the second half against Stetson and headed straight for the locker room.
The Miami Hurricanes men’s basketball team will now begin their slate of Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) matchups shorthanded against the Pittsburgh Panthers at the Watsco Center on Wednesday evening. Only six players, including Stony Brook transfer guard Elijah Olaniyi, will remain available for Larrañaga, who has started his 10th season at UM with three wins and one loss.
“In all likelihood, we’ll have six scholarship players and (guard) Willie Herenton, our walk-on, available for play tomorrow,” Larrañaga said. “We’re going to have to change the warmup because we don’t even have enough guys to do two-line layups.”
Miami’s other five active, scholarship players remain inactive for the time being. Lykes and Timberlake continue to heal their ankle injuries, while redshirt senior guard and center Kameron McGusty and Rodney Miller experienced leg injuries in the first half versus Florida Gulf Coast (FGCU) on Saturday.
“Yesterday (Monday) and again today we will not have Chris Lykes, Kam McGusty, Rodney Miller, Earl Timberlake, and Matt Cross (at practice),” said Larrañaga, who also stated that the team will not know their availability until late Wednesday afternoon.
6-foot-11 redshirt junior Deng Gak, who missed the previous two seasons with identical injuries on each knee, has been limited in his daily workload since Saturday’s 66-62 loss.
“I have my fingers crossed that Deng Gak will be available,” Larrañaga said. “He did actually practice a little yesterday, but his knees are bothering him today. So, we can’t afford for him to practice today and for those knees to get worse. Hopefully that additional rest will prepare him to at least be functional tomorrow at 6 o’clock and be able to contribute some minutes.”
Matt Cross, who has started each game thus far while registering a career-high 11 points versus Stetson, only scored two points in the loss to FGCU. Larrañaga noted postgame that Cross’ right arm has bothered him for the previous ten days at the time, hence his lack of ability to shoot the ball and contribute offensively.
“He’s been dealing with that shoulder,” Larrañaga said Tuesday. “I think the way I would describe it is that he’s day-to-day.”
Olaniyi, however, has been eager to play since his arrival to UM’s campus. He’ll likely see plenty of action on Wednesday given the NCAA’s anticipated decision to grant college basketball transfers immediate eligibility, as all players will retain a year of eligibility next season.
“I’m hoping that he brings a lot of points, rebounds, assists, and defense,” Larrañaga said wishfully. “He’s a good player, you know. He’s a lot like guys we’ve had like a Kam McGusty [or] a Sheldon McClellan. Elijah’s a very good cutter. He’ll probably get some baskets just moving without the ball. We’re very, very pleased with the way he’s practiced. He’s been at every practice the last month (and) he’s worked very, very hard.”
Larrañaga also credited Olaniyi’s solid physical conditioning, perimeter scoring abilities, and attacking the basket, while disputing that the rule regarding immediate eligibility for players, like the senior, had been decided upon prior to the season’s start.
“I think [he] will be a very significant contributor,” Larrañaga said. “I wish this decision about transfers had been made earlier. We could have had him over the weekend, he would’ve made a significant difference then.
“The way I look at rules is the rule is either good or it’s not good and in this particular case, if they make all the transfers eligible right now, I look at it two ways. One, I’m very, very happy if they do it because I think it’s a good thing. But I think the second part is I think they should have done it before the season ever began.”
This year’s exception potentially becoming permanent and thus the elimination of many redshirt student-athletes transpiring in the near future was how Larrañaga eventually justified his viewpoint.
“If it’s good for next year and from now on, why isn’t it good now?” Larrañaga questioned on the NCAA’s hesitance to sign off on the highly disputed rule. “That doesn’t make any sense to me at all. So, one of the issues I see is in the last four or five years, there’s been a tremendous increase in transfers and now there’s over a thousand transfers in men’s basketball every year. That’s an average of three per team. Well, that means three guys are sitting on somebody’s bench on scholarship not playing basketball.”
With under 12 hours until the Canes and Panthers tip off in their first looks of ACC competition, Larrañaga’s team seeks a rejuvenated performance on both ends of the court having shot just 3-of-19 from 3-point territory while allowing their opponent 13 threes.
The game will be broadcasted starting at 6 p.m. on the ACC Network, as Miami looks for its fourth win.