ACC Preview: Miami’s Burning Question

Posted by Matt Patton on October 30th, 2014

How quickly can Jim Larranaga rebuild at the ACC level?

There’s no denying Jim Larranaga is a great coach. He won at George Mason and he won when he got to Miami. But the question is whether he can put together a program in Coral Gables like Leonard Hamilton or Tony Bennett have in Tallahassee and Charlottesville? There are two parts of coaching at any level: player development and game coaching. Two seasons ago, Larranaga showed he was a master at both. But at the college level, there’s a third equally important factor in play: recruiting.

Jim Larranaga needs this team to improve on last year's. (photo credit: AP)

Jim Larranaga needs this team to improve on last year’s. (photo credit: AP)

Leonard Hamilton is the better comparison because Miami doesn’t have nearly the investment in basketball as Virginia, but both Hamilton and Bennett run sustainable programs. He also turned Miami into a strong Big East program before moving on to Tallahassee. Hamilton’s team has had its ups and downs, but Florida State is always competitive and will be a contender every few seasons. It’s important to remember that building a program takes time, but this year should say a lot about Miami’s momentum. Last season, Larranaga established his floor: close to .500 overall, bottom of the middle tier of the ACC, and a win in Chapel Hill. The team was competitive. Rion Brown stepped up as the only important returnee from the 2013 conference champions. Now he’s gone, leaving junior Tonye Jekiri and sophomore Manu Lacomte to take the reins here.

Lacomte showed flashes of brilliance. He’s a capable shooter and floor general. If he makes a big leap this season, Miami will surpass expectations (the Hurricanes were picked #10 by the assembled media at Operation Basketball Wednesday). He has to take care of the ball and take a larger role on offense this season. Jekiri, on the other hand, is an unknown. While he has physical skills — he’s an athletic seven-footer — he only started playing basketball in 2010. So take his mediocre stats from his freshman and sophomore seasons with a grain of salt. That said, it’s impossible to know whether another summer will make him a force in the paint. The only way Miami makes the NCAA Tournament this season, though, is if he becomes a borderline all-ACC caliber player, which isn’t impossible. But it’s unlikely.

Is Manu Lecomte ready to make the sophomore leap? (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Is Manu Lecomte ready to make the sophomore leap? (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Joining the backcourt are three freshmen guards who should all make an impact: Deandre Burnett (a redshirt freshman guard who was a consensus 4-star recruit), Ja’Quan Newton (a consensus top-100 combo guard) and James Palmer (a borderline top-100 shooting guard). All three are guards, though, which means Miami will rely heavily on its backcourt (and thus heavily on Jekiri up front). Look for the trio to get playing time right off the bat with Burnett and Newton potentially starting. The x-factor will be consensus top-100 recruit Ivan Cruz Uceda, a Spanish freshman who is ineligible for the first half of the year. He’s a skilled 6’10” forward who will give Larranaga much needed size up front. He is allowed to start playing for Miami at the beginning of conference play and could be a real game-changer.

At the end of the season, I think the person giving Miami a vote in the USA Today/Coaches’ poll will regret it, but this team should be better than last season. Assuming a strong finish they’ll have an outside shot at making the NCAA Tournament, but the NIT is a much more likely destination.

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