Throughout the early part of the 2020-21 season, Jim Larranaga’s Miami Hurricanes have done everything they could to limit the spread of COVID-19 into their facilities.
The ‘Canes (4-2) have played all six of their games at the Watsco Center – five non-conference games, one ACC – controlling their traveling and any other issues that have daunted other programs. So far, that plan has been successful, with zero cancelations and no positive tests amongst players and coaches.
However, they’ve dealt with a different bug, one that’s consistently diminished Larranaga’s team’s in years past: injuries.
UM was suffering from such before their season kicked off, with Sam Waardenburg (foot) out for the season and Earl Timberlake (ankle) sidelined for five games. Miami adjusted for their opener versus North Florida, and things seemed to be going in the right direction.
But in typical fashion, things got worse.
Leading scorer Chris Lykes went down against Stetson with a right ankle injury, one that has kept him out for the past four games and likely until Christmas. Then came Kameron McGusty and Rodney Miller Jr., who both suffered leg injuries in the first half of Miami’s 66-62 loss to Florida Gulf Coast.
Miami was forced to open up their ACC schedule vs. Pittsburgh with just seven scholarship players, including a player who’d been granted eligibility just an hour before tip-off – Elijah Olaniyi. Trailing 27-25 at the half despite their horrific shooting, UM seemed very much alive. That was until in a stretch of a few minutes, freshman Matt Cross landed awkwardly following a missed layup and sophomore Isaiah Wong tweaked his ankle.
Although Wong did return later in the game, the availability of such few players with very little chemistry helped the Panthers edge past Miami 70-55.
Larranaga’s group welcomed back Timberlake and Miller Jr. in a 73-64 win over Jacksonville State, but it was obvious that the presence of two of their three leading scorers – Lykes and McGusty – are needed for things to truly click.
That being said, the questions remains: what can coach Larranaga do?
As of now, he’s handed the keys of the offense to Wong, who’s leading UM in points (19.0) and has added 6.2 rebounds and 1.5 steals. So far, he’s had four 20-point games this season, providing the scoring that’s desperately needed. Sophomore forward Anthony Walker Jr. has also been efficient in his first two career starts, recording two double-doubles and notching career-highs in points (18) and rebounds (10).
Along with the two, sophomore guard Harlond Beverly has been the lead facilitator (4.0 APG) and redshirt senior Nysier Brooks is controlling the boards (7.0 RPG).
Although their usage has been essential to Miami’s success and will continue to be as the season progresses, all likelihood indicates that what UM has on the court right now won’t be enough to compete come March – NCAA Tournament.
Examples of this are shown in the Hurricanes’ putrid all-around shooting, converting on just 23.5% (28-119) of their shots from beyond the arc and 66.0% (95-144) from the free-throw line this season. A majority of this production is due to not having Lykes – who shot 38.1% from 3-PT range last season – and McGusty – 32.8% from deep last season – on the court.
Add that alongside lineups with little to no experience together in the offseason and it sparks an issue Larranaga simply has to deal with. Against Pittsburgh and FGCU, he had no answer to their 2-3 zone, largely because Wong – who is essential at attacking the paint when teams are in the zone – has to play more of a moderator role to get his group on the same page. And when he went down versus Pitt, it was Beverly who became in charge of doing it all, and he just couldn’t.
The lack of a true commander on the court like Lykes, mixed in with sloppy shooting from beyond the arc has become the recipe for failure for UM, and teams are beginning to take it into account. And for as long as the two seniors remain sidelined, Larranaga will have to continue working with the little depth he has.
Larranaga’s group will take on their toughest challenge next Tuesday, as they travel to play No. 24 ranked Virginia tech (6-1) at 6:00 p.m. It’s uncertain if Lykes and McGusty will play.