The final horn sounded on March 15, 2018 in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament. Instead of celebrating a down to the wire win, the Miami Hurricanes wore looks of shock and dismay on their faces. Loyola Chicago Ramblers guard Donte Ingram had hit a deep 3-point field goal to ice the game.
It’s now been over two years since the ‘Canes have found themselves competing in the NCAA Tournament. It was not probable that they would compete in the tournament as an at-large bid team after a disappointing loss to Clemson in the second round of the 2020 ACC Tournament.
Head coach Jim Larrañaga has not lost an ounce of hope in his team, however. The 70-year-old Bronx native has in fact not even considered retiring from coaching.
“We got everybody else who’s back and we got a lot of work ahead of us,” Larrañaga said. “But we add Nas [Nysier Brooks], we add some other guys, we got a chance to be really, really good.”
With two straight seasons filled with injuries, ineligibility cases, and even an FBI Investigation against former Miami forward Dewan Hernandez in the rearview mirror, head coach Jim Larrañaga and his staff believe they are ready for a fruitful 2020-2021 campaign.
Having only lost two seniors in guard DJ Vasiljevic and forward Keith Stone, the Hurricanes welcome back nine scholarship players from this past season—with plenty else to look forward to from both a recruiting and transfer standpoint.
Attracting high school talent was something Larrañaga and his coaching staff received recognition for this past spring. The program pulled in 6-foot-6 guard Earl Timberlake, a top-35 nationally ranked recruit by 247 Sports.
Viewed as a blue-chip recruit by most, Timberlake received offers from countless Power Five conference schools, including blue-blood programs like North Carolina and Louisville.
What came as a surprise to some that Miami had landed such a highly touted player, in fact came from the inexhaustible determination that Larrañaga and his coaching staff had maintained in bringing him to Coral Gables.
“My assistant coaching staff is outstanding at identifying the very talented players, whether they are highly regarded nationally or not. And they are not only able to identify them, but get us involved with them and pursue them in such a way that we become one of the four or five that they want to seriously consider,” Larrañaga said.
Timberlake, the program’s highest-ranked signing since Lonnie Walker in 2017, is primed to bring all of his advertised talents to the Hurricanes. Recruited by assistant coach Bill Courtney, the Hyattsville, Md. native also played in the same high school conference as new teammate Chris Lykes, who’s from just the down the road in Mitchellville.
“I’m going to go hard. I leave it all on the court,” Timberlake said. “I can pretty much do everything on the court. I can guard the best player, I can score, I can rebound, I can pass. I can do anything my coach needs me to do to win.”
An athletic, all-around player in Timberlake that can bring energy and leadership is just what a team like Miami needs in order to compete in the rigorous ACC given his size, strength, speed, and vertical leap.
But Timberlake is not the only four-star recruit the Hurricanes signed. 6-foot-6 forward Matt Cross is expected to bring perimeter shooting and can hopefully fill the role of DJ Vasiljevic, who finished second in all-time 3-point field goals made (272) at Miami.
Similar to Timberlake, the No. 17 nationally ranked small forward also thrived at the Nike EYBL, averaging roughly 23 points and 9.5 rebounds per game, putting his name on the map for college scouts and coaches.
Larrañaga and associate head coach Chris Caputo saw plenty of upside in Cross upon recruiting him to The U before he committed in early September.
“Matt is the definition of hard-nosed. He’s an outstanding 3-point shooter, a great team-oriented player and has an extreme toughness that will allow him to compete against the best players in the ACC.” Larrañaga said. Cross also received offers from Indiana, South Carolina, Butler, and Texas A&M.
“Miami was a great fit for me and there was connections with the people around me like my AAU coach Leo Papile whose word means a lot to me and the culture and environment I think can help build my game and as a person and help get to be a possible pro one day,” Cross said. The Wolfeboro, N.H. native sees himself as someone who can produce as a shooter and exploit the mismatches that the ‘Canes seek offensively.
For a team in need of depth, shooting and rebounding, Timberlake and Cross can not only deepen the Hurricanes’ rotation but have the opportunity to make strong impacts from the get-go, taking pressure off of senior guards Chris Lykes and Kameron McGusty.
The timing of these two freshman arrivals could not have been better, in addition to 6-foot-9 center Nysier Brooks. A Cincinnati transfer, Brooks will suit up and likely start for the ‘Canes as a defensive force this fall.
The ‘Canes struggled mightily on defense this year, allowing opponents to score an average of 73.2 points per game, ranking a dreadful No. 283 nationally. They also finished in the cellar of the ACC in rebounding, allowing 38.5 rebounds per game finishing at only No. 313 in the country.
Brooks’ physical presence in the paint could not be needed any sooner, 6.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game for Cincinnati in their 2018-2019 campaign, having won the AAC Tournament that year.
Larrañaga couldn’t be more ecstatic to have the Philadelphia native in the Hurricanes frontcourt.
“He adds an entirely different dimension because he’s a combination of Tonye Jakiri and Reggie Johnson,” Larrañaga said. “He can do the things defensively that Tonye could do, but he can do the things Reggie could do so I’m looking at it as Reggie and Julian Gamble gave us a one-two punch in the post that we haven’t had since they graduated.”
Brooks packing the paint should give redshirt seniors Rodney Miller and Sam Waardenburg the support they need this season. Graduate transfer forward Keith Stone had been injured for a significant portion of last season and has now graduated, leaving a hole for Brooks and one other ‘Cane to fill.
Forgotten about by some, redshirt junior forward Deng Gak has yet to show his full potential at the collegiate level. After redshirting his freshman year (2017-2018) and having been hampered by season-ending knee injuries the following two seasons, Gak will also have the chance to play a vital role in rebounding and shot blocking.
“Deng was a very valuable sub. He’s improving. He’s getting bigger and stronger. The strange part about the injury is identical to the one he had last year except on the other [knee],” Larrañaga said. The 6-foot-10, Sydney, Australia native has proven to be a shot blocker to reckon with in the glimpses displayed in both seasons before each knee injury.
Originally a four-star recruit in 2016, Gak brings athletic potential on the defensive end for Miami and will likely receive a medical waiver to receive a sixth year of eligibility, due to him not playing in at least 30 percent of scheduled games each year.
Either way, Gak remains another frontcourt option for Larrañaga, having been in the team’s environment for three seasons. A bolstered, veteran set of forwards and centers under the basket could be instrumental to Miami’s potential successes this year.
To say that it is almost now or never for the Hurricanes would almost be an understatement. Returning the majority of a team’s scholarship players while welcoming in two, four-star recruits and a proven transfer player can be quite rare.
Finishing 11th in the rigorous ACC this past season, the Hurricanes will find themselves matched up against perennial programs featuring future NBA potential and historic coaching.
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Miami’s roster represents an array of potential talent and depth on paper. Wins against blue-blood ACC foes including Duke, North Carolina and Louisville will only propel them towards the upper end of the conference and closer to an at-large bid for the tournament.
Health nonetheless remains a consistent key to maintaining team scoring, rebounding and defense, as the Hurricanes grappled with these three areas at times last season.
Competing for ACC wins has been challenging for Miami with a shorter rotation, but the program has remained determined to battle and do what is necessary to win even if the scoreboard shows otherwise.