Give props, at least now, for the improbable run Jim Larranaga and the Miami Hurricanes propelled. With three games in as many days, UM, a No. 13 seed entering the ACC tournament, earned the respect of those around the conference, as their dignity to strive withstood their sorrow following a third consecutive losing season.
We saw Isaiah Wong, an All-ACC third-team selectee, shine when it mattered most, while the senior class extended their playing careers for a few more days.
Here are five takeaways from Miami’s historic run to the tournament quarterfinals.
1. Things didn’t revolve around Wong. That made things easier than ever.
In an article prior to the tournament, I emphasized the importance of using the pieces around the sophomore guard, instead of relying on his abilities for 40 minutes.
That said, Larranaga’s approach to games versus Pittsburgh, Clemson and Georgia Tech exemplified that. Against Pitt, UM filled the stat sheet with five players scoring in the double-digits, as Wong led with 20 points. That not only eased the load for him but truly tested the Panthers in having to step outside the norm when taking on the ‘Canes.
Miami’s showdown versus the Tigers, who they had lost to twice in the regular season, was another case of using all six available players to their advantage. Although Wong took over with 20 points again, the contributions from his teammates were notable, with Anthony Walker scoring 15 and Kameron McGusty 14. Off the bench, former walk-on Willie Herenton provided a spark on both ends of the court that gave Miami’s backcourt needed rest, finishing with three points and a steal.
That 67-64 win saw Miami shoot 29-of-54 (53.7%) overall and 5-of-13 (38.5%) from beyond the arc, deserving of a victory over a team now in the NCAA tournament as a No. 7 seed.
Even against Georgia Tech, who UM had lost to by 27 earlier in the season, scoring from different players in multiple examples helped them hold a four-point lead at halftime. If it weren’t for a second-half stretch where they didn’t hit a field goal for eight minutes, Miami could’ve very well been in the ACC Championship Game, with a chance to become the nineteenth team in NCAA history to secure a bid to the tournament with a losing record.
The intriguing fact about Miami’s run as the No. 13 seed is that Wong never led in field goals attempted through those three games. He finished the tournament averaging 17.3 points, 3.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists, deserving of ACC All-Tournament second-team honors. He played 116 of the 120 minutes, a testimony of his will to compete.
2. The use of Nysier Brooks came in handy.
In my piece about Miami’s woes, one pointer was the lack of awareness for the redshirt senior at the rim. Despite attributing a team-high 51.7 field goal percentage, Brooks was taking just five shots per game, the sixth-most on the team.
Coming into the tournament, looking for Brooks became more of a priority, and that benefited UM tremendously. He finished with two double-digit outings, including a 19-point contest versus the Yellow Jackets on 6-of-11 shooting.
Using the 7-foot big gave opposing defenses a fear factor inside, as his post presence was difficult to handle against undersized teams like Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech. It also prevented Miami from getting stuck against a zone defense, with Brooks able to post up and finish or draw contact.
3. Adding Kameron McGusty to the ‘hero ball’ mix worked for Miami.
The redshirt senior forward has always showcased the talent to score. This time around, he did it again, just at a bigger stage.
Alongside Wong, the duo led in scoring for Larranaga’s group, combining to average 35 points per game. McGusty garnered 53 points (17.7 PPG) in that three-game stretch, including a team-high 25 on 10-of-16 shooting against Georgia Tech.
McGusty showed patience when attacking the basket, didn’t shy away from his mid-range jumper and stayed away from settling, a trait UM dealt with through the course of the season.
“When you clear a whole side, it gives Isaiah and Kam a chance to do what they do really well, and that’s basically to play 1-on-1,” Larranaga said, following the win over Clemson.
4. Miami stuck to its fruitions.
In the eyes of Larranaga, commitment was the factor in glorifying the ambiance of his program for the last games of his tenth season as head coach at Miami.
Whether it was on the court or on the bench, emotions were high for UM in their run to the ACC quarterfinals, and that’s something worth noting.
“We always talk about commitment,” he said. “Commitment has four levels: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Spiritual is about team spirit, that we’re all in this together. If you saw the enthusiasm on the sideline and the team spirit of guys pumping each other up after every timeout, you don’t want to let your teammates down.”
For obvious reasons, it’s been difficult to stick to those goals for the course of an entire season riddled with injuries and surprising twists. Still, Larranaga’s unit gave teams a run for their money, and while that significance is bitter now, it’ll come into effect next season.
5. What if UM were healthy…
What if’s offer a sense of comfortability to scenarios that one wishes would’ve happened. For Miami, they’ll be sitting on those thoughts through the course of the offseason.
The Hurricanes came into and exited the ACC tournament without five scholarship players, ending the season with nine players combining to miss 113 games because of injury. The headline was Chris Lykes, who missed 25 games with an ankle injury, but the absence of cornerstone pieces like Sam Waardenburg and Earl Timberlake also damaged UM during conference play.
A tournament hopeful team in late November now reminisces what was a disappointing yet memorable year. In the end, many of these seniors learned valuable lessons, while others prepare to return next season with a reason to compete.