It’s been two years since the Miami Hurricanes finished a season above .500.
Plagued by injuries and FBI investigations, Jim Larranaga’s recent groups have failed to withstand an entire duration of their schedule. When things seemed to be going right in 2019 following an overtime victory against Clemson, the absence of vital players hurt them drastically.
They’d go on to lose nine of their next 11 games, followed by a three-game winning streak that was then disrupted versus Notre Dame. UM was ultimately knocked out of the ACC Tournament immediately, failing to even clinch a spot in the NIT.
Luckily for Larranaga’s group, their disappointing season was shaded by COVID-19. This time around – although the virus remains – it seems like they’re in store for a season like no other.
What’s the difference? Depth.
The Hurricanes welcome fifth-year senior center Nysier Brooks and freshman Earl Timberlake and Matt Cross to the roster, adding talent, length, strength and best of all, defense. Although it sounds bitter, it’s something this group has missed.
“We have been perhaps the worst team in the ACC defensively the past two seasons,” Larranaga said. “Some of it has to do with our lack of depth, some of it has to do with not being quite as big and talented as in my previous seasons.”
In some ways, the 2020-21 season gives Miami a chance to boost itself into a run into March, something that’s been non-existent since 2018. Although they failed to rank above the top 10 in the ACC based on their recruiting class, they seem to have brought in enough pieces to remain competitive when things get rough.
Even with the loss of Sam Waardenburg, they remain persistent en route to an NCAA Tournament bid.
“When I was speaking to anyone from the media, I would say as long as we stay healthy, we should be in much better shape than we have been the last two seasons,” Larranaga said. “But it is a big blow to us to lose Sam.”
The Hurricanes are just weeks away from their season-opener against North Florida. That being said, here’s the projected starting lineup and depth chart for the Nov. 29 contest.
Starter: Chris Lykes (Sr.)
Backup: Harlond Beverly (So.)
Others on Scholarship: Willie Herenton (Sr.) Filippos Gkogkos (So.)
Back for what’ll likely be his final year at the collegiate level, Lykes awaits a breakout season that was seen by former UM guards Angel Rodriguez and Shane Larkin. The 5-foot-7 primary scorer will once again be handed the keys to the offense.
He hopes that his efforts can lead to winning.
“I’m trying to win as many games as I can,” Lykes said. “I feel like I’ve had a solid career here, but careers are always defined by winning. Unfortunately I haven’t won much here.”
Aside from him, the sophomore Beverly will likely see more time on the court, whether it be at the one or two spot. Although he started just five games last season, Beverly should feel comfortable in terms of taking on some of the better programs in the ACC.
Starter: Isaiah Wong (So.)
Backup: Harlond Beverly (So.)
Others on Scholarship: Kameron McGusty (R-Sr.), Filippos Gkogkos (So.)
By the end of last season, Wong had showcased enough of his potential to earn a permanent starting role. A 7.7 points per game scorer, expect more from the former four-star prospect when it comes to serving as a 1-2 punch alongside Lykes.
Either Beverly or redshirt senior Kameron McGusty would be the likely suitors at the shooting guard spot when Wong is out. Both players have experience at that position, especially McGusty.
Wong and company will be replacing former Miami captain D.J. Vasiljevic, a streaky three-point shooter who recently signed an NBL contract with the Sydney Kings.
Starter: Kameron McGusty (R-Sr.)
Backup: Anthony Walker (So.)
Others on Scholarship: Matt Cross (Fr.)
McGusty enters the season injury-free, an issue he’s dealt with since UM’s road loss to Florida State a year back. The 6-foot-6 guard/forward proved to be a reliable scorer, recording 10-plus points in 20 games last season.
Backing him up will likely be sophomore Anthony Walker as soon as he returns from a knee injury that’ll keep him out for approximately two weeks. That being said, at least versus the Ospreys, freshman Matt Cross could surface some playing time.
Starter: Earl Timberlake (Fr.)
Backup: Deng Gak (R-Jr.)
Others on Scholarship: Anthony Walker (So.), Matt Cross (Fr.)
With Waardenburg out for the entire season, the likelihood that Larranaga gives this spot to the most talented player available is very much a possibility.
If that’s the case, it’ll be freshman Earl Timberlake’s spot to lose.
“He is more physically ready than most freshmen,” Larranaga said. “He’s strong and athletic and is going to be a major contributor from day one.”
Ranked as a four-star by 247Sports and Rivals, Timberlake adds to Miami what former Cane Bruce Brown, who’s now with the Brooklyn Nets, brought to the table. The athleticism and strength are obviously there, and according to Larranaga, so is his ability to rebound.
After all, his true competitor for the spot would be redshirt junior Deng Gak, who’s been consistently sidelined with injuries, and Walker, who’s currently dealing with a knee issue. There’s nobody with serious experience at the four spot, which likely makes things lean towards Timberlake.
Starter: Nysier Brooks (R-Sr.)
Backup: Rodney Miller Jr. (R-Sr.)
Others on Scholarship: Deng Gak (R-Jr.)
Arguably the X-factor to what this team hopes to accomplish, Brooks, a Cincinnati transfer, adds the length and defensive presence that was needed last season.
The 7-footer averaged 6.3 rebounds and totaled 51 blocks his junior season, the third-most in the AAC. After sitting a year, he hopes to translate that effectiveness to Miami.
“I know a lot more people at this level intend to try me, so I’m going to focus on going vertical,” Brooks said. “A lot of people aren’t going through me to finish, but there will be a lot of people that have athletic abilities, so I’m just waiting for them to come see. I’m planning on trying to get defensive player of the year in this conference.”
Redshirt senior Rodney Miller Jr. will be backing him up, along with Gak when need be. Miller, who started in 30 games last season, definitely serves as a useful piece off the bench, having averaged 7.2 points and 5.5 rebounds per game last season.
Starting rotations remain premature and unknown for Miami. With four non-conference games to prepare for ACC play, expect changes in lineups as Larranaga and his staff experiment with what they have in store.
If health doesn’t strike Miami for the third straight season, the ceiling on his team is higher than expected.
Larranaga, 71, prepares for his 10th year at Miami and 37th as a head coach. It’s time he puts the Hurricanes back on the map.