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Canes Hoops: 2019-20 Season Preview

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The Hurricanes are off a disappointing 2018-19 campaign, falling short of expectations and missing the NCAA Tournament. Key returnees and newcomers will hope to lead Miami to a bounce-back year.

NCAA Basketball: Miami-Florida at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018-19 season was largely one of frustration, disappointment and confusion for the Miami Hurricanes. They were fresh off a heartbreaking loss to Loyola Chicago in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, but had at least made the big dance in each of the previous three seasons. UM had been picked to finish 10th in the preseason Atlantic Coast Conference media poll amid concerns surrounding an uncertain roster, but every one of Jim Larrañaga’s Miami teams had finished higher in the final league standings than predicted in the preseason.

What unfolded however, was one of the more disappointing seasons of Larrañaga’s tenure in Coral Gables. Junior Dewan Hernandez being ruled ineligible to play right as the season commenced was an omen that spelled trouble in the season ahead. By March, the Canes sat at just 14-18 overall and 5-13 in ACC action. 2018-19 was the first losing season under Larrañaga, and was the worst overall season by record since 2006-07. Before former walk-on Willie Herenton earned a full scholarship late in the campaign, Miami had been down to just seven scholarship players.

In 2019-20, the Hurricanes are looking to bounce back from their first year without any postseason basketball since 2013-14, and just the second in Larrañaga’s UM career after three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. Primarily a younger squad, Miami will still look to its upperclassmen to lead the team to a bounce-back year.

Offseason Recap

After signing no recruits in the 2018 class due to an investigation into Miami’s role in the Adidas corruption scandal, Larrañaga and his staff recovered to sign three 2019 high school graduates in Harlond Beverly, Isaiah Wong and Anthony Walker. The three have all enrolled at UM.

Larrañaga was also able to pull a couple of transfers to Coral Gables through the ever-magical transfer portal. Graduate transfer Keith Stone should be an instrumental piece in the post to help the Canes rebuild much-needed depth down low. Nysier Brooks also comes to Miami from Cincinnati, but will sit out the upcoming season and play in his final year of eligibility in 2020-21. Oklahoma transfer Kameron McGusty sat out the 2018-19 season after coming to Coral Gables and is set to play his first of his two remaining seasons of eligibility.

The highlight of the offseason was August’s team trip to Italy. The Hurricanes played three games against European competition in Rome, Florence and Northern Italy, all resulting in wins. From both a basketball and team bonding perspective, the trip was a huge success.

By the Numbers

For the first time, the ACC has scheduled league games on opening night. Miami will open their season on November 5 at home when they take on the Louisville Cardinals.

Chris Lykes made the All-ACC second-team. The point guard averaged 16.2 points in each of his 32 starts, to go along with 3.2 assists per game and a three-point field goal percentage of .318.

Three freshman will sport orange and green this season, who together made up the ACC’s No. 6 recruiting class in 2019, while raining 30th nationally. Four-stars Beverly and Wong made up two of the nation’s top-100 recruits accounting to 247. 6-8 forward Walker comes to Coral Gables from New Hampshire, where he’ll be featured in a much deeper front court rotation.

Four key players from 2018-19 don’t return for the upcoming season. Anthony Lawrence II graduated and finds himself as a free agent in professional basketball following a brief stint in the Israeli league. Zach Johnson also graduated after a single year with the Canes. Johnson came as a graduate transfer from Florida Gulf Coast. Anthony Mack left the program after his redshirt freshman season with UM, while last year’s center Ebuka Izundu has found a home with Real Betis in Spain after spending the summer in the Golden State Warriors’ organization.

Larrañaga will have to choose five players to make up the starting lineup. With so much in flux after losing several players from last year while also welcoming a handful of newcomers, the starting lineup has been a curiosity among fans.

Lykes, DJ Vasiljevic, and Sam Waardenburg are the only returning players with more than one start. McGusty was a spot starter with the Sooners in his two years with the program and will likely slide right into UM’s starting lineup.

The biggest question will be who takes over at center. Izundu provided the team with a security blanket down low, and his absence leaves a void that will prove tough to replace. Rodney Miller and Deng Gak are the returning players from prior seasons in the low post, with Gak in the closing stages of injury rehab from last year before being back at full strength. Forwards Walker and Stone may also play with their backs to the basket at times this season, with the latter having experience starting.

Six full seasons have passed since the magical 2012-13 season, the best year in program history since reestablishment in 1985. 2013 was the only time the program won a conference tournament title, along with being a sole champion of a league regular season. Shane Larkin and Trey McKinney-Jones were leaders of that team, while Larrañaga was that season’s consensus national coach of the year. If there is a level that the Hurricanes are trying to reach, this year or any year after, this is it.

Seven ACC Teams made the NCAA Tournament a year ago. Virginia won the championship in a thrilling final over Texas Tech. Duke and their elite freshman class led by Zion Williamson was upset in the Elite Eight by Michigan State. North Carolina, Florida State and Virginia Tech made the Sweet 16, while Louisville and Syracuse were both defeated in the first round.

Miami lost eight games a season ago by seven points or less, representing just over half of their total losses (UM was 14-18 overall). Three consecutive close losses to Seton Hall, Rutgers, and Yale put a damper on the season not long after it started. An 88-85 OT loss at UNC on February 9 was especially tough to swallow after the Canes gave up a last-minute lead in regulation.

The Hurricanes were picked to finish ninth in the ACC in 2019-20, right between Syracuse in eighth and Pitt in 10th.

Larrañaga’s team will play 10 non-conference games this year, beginning with FAU on November 8. UM will travel to UCF on November 12, and will also be on the road for the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, taking on Illinois December 2. Another potential marquee non-conference game may fall on November 22 at the Charleston Classic in South Carolina, with the possibility of playing Florida in the tournament’s second round. Such a matchup will be determined by the results of the first round of the event.

For the first time in conference history, the ACC expands their conference schedule to 20 games per team. This will provide a challenge for Miami and every other conference foe, faced with two additional games against teams in arguably the nation’s toughest league.

Backcourt

The backcourt was the Canes’ biggest strength a season ago. Despite losing Lonnie Walker, Bruce Brown and Ja’Quan Newton, Miami finished in the top half of the ACC in serval shooting categories, including free throw percentage, three-point field goal percentage, and points per game. Lykes was also 10th in the conference in scoring. Vasiljevic should continue to be the team’s primary three-point threat, who comes into his senior season eighth in program history in three-point field goals off a .367 shooting percentage from beyond the arc a season ago.

NCAA Basketball: Oklahoma at Alabama
McGusty should be a fan favorite in his first year playing for the Hurricanes.
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

McGusty should make an instant impact in his first season as a Hurricane. In addition to averaging eight points per game as a sophomore, the Katy, TX native shot over 42% from the field and 33% from three-point range, improving to 40% from range in Big 12 action in his last season with the Sooners.

With Lawrence and Johnson gone, the Canes will be lacking a ton of depth at the guard positions, and may need freshmen Wong, Beverly, or former walk-on Willie Herenton to step up in times of inevitable injury or foul trouble.

Frontcourt

When Miami was stripped to just seven rotational players last year, the lack of depth was felt especially down low, with just two to three natural post players available for much of the season. Hernandez’s ineligibility combined with Gak’s injury was a one-two punch that made life difficult for Larrañaga. The biggest saving grace was Izundu’s year in the paint, having quietly scored just under 11 points and pulling down over eight rebounds per game, and shooting 65.5% from the field, an all-time single-season program record and good second in the conference a season ago behind only Zion Williamson.

While Larrañaga will have to get used to not having Izundu around anymore, he’ll have a much deeper arsenal in the frontcourt. Sam Waardenburg returns for his redshirt junior season, having scored in double-figures five times and having shot over 35% from three-point range last year. The New Zealand native’s athleticism may also allow him to stretch the floor and play small when needed.

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Miami-Florida vs Wake Forest
Waardenburg’s combination of height and skill makes him a possible stretch forward candidate, especially with a short front court bench.
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Gak will look to have a breakout season as a redshirt sophomore, having recorded 2.5 points and 4.1 rebounds per game over his 11 appearances before being sidelined due to injury. Fans will get to see Miller’s progression after taking last year off to continue developing.

Stone, who started in each of the previous two seasons at UF, is a factor when heathy. Before missing most of SEC play due to a knee injury, the incoming senior averaged around six points and four rebounds per game, and nearly nine points per game as a sophomore. Freshman Walker can also be a factor down low, potentially giving the Hurricanes a five-man rotation at the ‘4’ and ‘5’ positions. Brooks meanwhile will take a redshirt per NCAA regulations.

Bottom Line

Miami is coming off a disappointing season, one that was certainly their worst since the arrival of Jim Larrañaga from George Mason. The Hurricanes lose several key contributors from that squad, making this season a bit of a rebuilding project by some accounts. But the combination of upperclassman leadership and fresh blood—of both youth and experience—can guide UM to a bounce back year. The Canes, pegged to finish ninth in the league, can put themselves in postseason contention by just meeting preseason expectations in the nation’s hardest conference.