CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The last image we have of Miami basketball is quite the memorable one.
Eventual Final Four participant and tournament darling Loyola-Chicago trailed the Hurricanes by a point late in an NCAA first-round matchup in Dallas, when Rambler star Donte Ingram caught a pass several feet beyond the arc, squared up, and buried the shot that sent home the Hurricanes.
Those few steps off the court were the last as Hurricanes for senior guard Ja’Quan Newton, which everyone knew was coming. Guards Lonnie Walker and Bruce Brown both declared for the draft soon thereafter, leaving two significant dents in the Miami roster. With Walker off to San Antonio and Brown to Detroit, Miami coach Jim Larrañaga acknowledged Wednesday at ACC Media Day that change will be the one constant for his club.
“You’re always gonna miss a player of Lonnie Walker and Bruce Brown’s caliber. Those guys are tremendous athletes,” said Larrañaga. “We don’t even have anybody really their size […] That wing player, 6-foot-5, 6-foot-6, 6-foot-7, we don’t have a lot of guys like that. We’re gonna rely very, very heavily on (6-foot-7 senior guard) Anthony Lawrence to provide us that mid-size athlete.”
Whatever changes in Coral Gables, the defensive product on the floor is certainly an important aspect of that change. Larrañaga mentioned Wednesday the significant change in his team’s defensive performance prior to ACC play and after its completion in 2017.
“Last year, in the (months) of November and December, just before heading into ACC play, we were the number one team in the country in defensive points per possession — not Virginia, not…number one,” said Larrañaga. “We ended (the) ACC regular season as 15th in the league.”
“Some of it had to do with the level of competition, the quality of offensive players now that we were going against, and some of it had to do with our focus. I don’t think our players were quite as focused defensively as they needed to be. We were young — we had a lot of young guys playing major minutes — and because of that, their defensive concepts were not at the ACC level.”
This is not to say there are not opportunities on the other side of the ball, though.
“At the offensive end, it’s turnovers. Turnovers are the worst thing you can do on offense. You don’t even get a shot. We need to be a really good ball-handling team that does not turn the ball over,” Larrañaga continued. “For us to be good offensively, there needs to be a lot of balance in our attack. We need to have four or five guys in double figures, sometimes six guys in double figures, to be successful offensively.”
Guard Zach Johnson brings his 13-points-per-game career average from Florida Gulf Coast as a graduate transfer, in the hopes that he will help answer some of the questions on both ends of the floor. 6-foot-6 redshirt freshman Anthony Mack also transferred in from Wyoming, becoming immediately eligible by the benefit of an NCAA waiver.
Howeer, just one of those double-digit scorers — forward Dewan Hernandez — returns to the roster for 2018-19. Hernandez averaged 11.4 points and 6.7 boards last year, while sophomore guard Chris Lykes comes in off a 9.6-points-per-game average in his opening campaign. Hernandez offered one simple secret to his increased productivity.
“I think it just shows the ability for me to get better, that’s all it shows,” said Hernandez. “With hard work, that’s all I did all summer, I think it’s going to happen again my junior year.”
Of all the things at which the team works hard, though, being great friends and teammates seems to top the list. Whether it’s the reasons Walker listed for wanting to stay when queried by Larrañaga (“We watch Animal Planet. We watch the History Channel. We hang out together. We eat together. We’re like family,” Larrañaga recalled Walker saying) or the cutting up in which Hernandez and Lawrence partook in Charlotte Wednesday, the camaraderie is clear.
The early-season schedule will give the ‘Canes even more of a chance to build that togetherness. Miami opens Friday, November 9th, hosting Lehigh. Games with LaSalle, Stephen F. Austin, Rutgers (ACC-Big Ten Challenge), and Campbell headline the non-league slate. Larrañaga’s club then begins ACC play Thursday, January 3rd, by hosting NC State.
When prompted by the moderator in a Wednesday press conference, Larrañaga spelled out his hopes for this year’s club when it returns to Charlotte for the 2019 ACC Tournament.
“Well, personally, I would like to come back with a championship team,” said Larrañaga. “A team that plays great defense, does an outstanding job of sharing the ball on offense. We have got a great group of guys who are working towards that goal.”