ACC Team Preview: Miami HurricanesPosted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on November 6th, 2013
Last season was a historic one for Miami basketball. The Hurricanes became the first school from outside the state of North Carolina to win the ACC regular season title outright and the ACC Tournament in the same year. Along the way came two home blowout wins over perennial league powers Duke and North Carolina, and a level of local support never seen before at Miami. They even had LeBron James and Dwayne Wade attend a game! Unfortunately, the top six players from that squad are now gone, so this will clearly be a rebuilding year for the Jim Larranaga’s squad.
The good news is that the man in charge is still Jim Larranaga. The 29-year head coaching veteran swept conference and national Coach of the Year awards last season, but he is best known for leading George Mason to the 2006 Final Four. Larranaga excels at putting pieces together to form a cohesive team and, despite his age, is known as a progressive thinking coach. He’s constantly looking for new teaching and motivational techniques, and has also embraced the new advanced statistics now available. To prepare for this season’s rules changes limiting contact, Larranaga has put a greater emphasis on defending without fouling. As he explained to the media at the recent ACC Operation Basketball, the Hurricanes’ goal each game is to limit opponents to less than one point per possession. If you put someone on the free throw line, all they have to do is hit one out of two to beat their goal. To combat that tendency, Miami preseason practices are stopped when the defense fouls and everybody runs sprints. Although the Hurricanes will have a dropoff this season, the program is in good shape moving forward. Next year, two transfers from Big 12 schools will be eligible, when Angel Rodriguez (Kansas State) and Sheldon McClellan (Texas) will form a solid junior backcourt.
The amazing thing about the eight new players to the program is the incredible variety in the group, especially with how they arrived. This includes the two transfers that must sit out this year. Perhaps the strangest of all is graduate transfer Donnavan Kirk from DePaul who actually started his career at Miami. He started 30 games last year for the Blue Demons, but only averaged 6.2 PPG and 3.9 RPG in Oliver Purnell’s system. More likely to help right away in the post is JuCo transfer James Kelly, a NJCAA D-II All-American. Shane Larkin’s replacement at the PG spot could be 5’9″ Manu Lecomte, a star on Belgium’s U-18 team last year. Reportedly he is a quick and skilled shooter and passer, but it remains to be seen if the smallish Lecomte can handle the physical play he will see in the ACC. More perimeter help will come from the only two recruited American freshmen, 6’6″ Davon Reed and 6’1″ Deandre Burnett. Finally, there is 5’11” freshman football player Cornelius Elder, who is expected to join the basketball team when the football season is over. Last year Elder was voted the Tennessee prep Player of the Year in both football and basketball, so he may help at the point guard spot.
This won’t take long to list. Rion Brown is the only significant contributor from last year returning. It’s essential that he become a strong leader vocally but also in his overall performance. To do that he must improve his three-point shooting, which dropped from 39.4 percent as a sophomore to 29.2 percent last year. He will be rejoined by senior Garrius Adams, who missed last season due to injury. Those two will provide good defense on the wing but must prove they are ready to handle a greater scoring burden. Seniors Raphael Akpejiori and Erik Swoope have never been major contributors but at least they will provide experienced frontcourt depth and leadership for the newcomers.
Potential Breakout Player
The returning big man with the most potential is 7’0″ Tonye Jekiri, a sophomore native of Nigeria. He saw limited action last year, playing behind senior standouts Kenny Kadji, Reggie Johnson, and Julian Gamble, but he did show some flashes of talent. As expected from someone who’s only played the game for a few years, the athletic Jekiri is still an offensive work in progress, but is already a good defender. With the opportunity now for major minutes, look for his improvement to accelerate.
Miami is part of a strong field in the Wooden Legacy tournament in Anaheim, California, during Thanksgiving week. Otherwise the non-conference schedule is very weak, with only a home game versus La Salle looking like a contest with a possible NCAA Tournament at-large candidate. In the ACC, Miami has a pretty good draw, playing Syracuse, Florida State, N.C. State and Virginia Tech twice. If the Hurricanes survive January, they may be able to make a surprise move in the conference standings. Among the six ACC games in that month are both meetings with Syracuse along with the only games with Duke and North Carolina.
The program is in great hands with Larranaga, but his teaching skills will certainly be tested this year. It’s a bit surprising that this season’s Hurricanes actually have five more seniors after losing five from the year before. So at least there is a good level of experience and leadership, even though all the remaining key players will have newly expanded roles. Look for Miami to accumulate a nice record against its weak non-conference opponents and then get knocked back with the front-loaded ACC schedule. After that, it’s quite possible that the Hurricanes recover and finish close to the middle of the pack in league play and earn an NIT bid, building momentum for the 2014-15 season when their talented transfer backcourt becomes eligible.