In every sport, there are things that one simply can’t control. For Jim Larranaga’s men’s basketball team, that’s been injuries – which have daunted his group for the past three seasons.
The Miami Hurricanes felt it in 2017-18 – Bruce Brown ( left foot, missed NCAA tournament) – 2018-19 – Deng Gak (torn meniscus, 24 games) – and 2019-20 – Gak (knee, 24 games), Keith Stone (left knee, 13 games), Kameron McGusty (back spasms, three games), Chris Lykes (facial fracture, ACC tournament).
Ironically, they’re already dealing with the same issue four games into the 2020-21 season.
Redshirt senior forward and projected starter Sam Waardenburg was ruled out for the entire season a few weeks before UM’s opener against North Florida with a left foot injury. Then, freshman forward Earl Timberlake sustained an ankle injury in practice that’ll continue to sideline him for 3-5 weeks. And most recently, senior guard Chris Lykes sprained his left ankle in UM’s 82-60 win over Stetson. It has kept him out for the past two games.
Then in Saturday’s 66-62 loss against Florida Gulf Coast, redshirt senior’s Kameron McGusty (right leg) and Rodney Miller Jr. (left leg) were ruled out of the second half after limited minutes early on.
Now entering their first ACC conference game Wednesday versus Pittsburgh, Miami has just six scholarship players not listed with an injury. That being said, it’s worthy to note that Larranaga said freshman Matt Cross has been dealing with a right arm issue for the past ten days, and it was reported last week that sophomore Isaiah Wong had an ankle injury.
“It’s very, very hard to function offensively when you have so few guys, especially when so many of them are playing out of position,” Larranaga said.
Now at 3-1 on the season, there have definitely been positives in UM’s early games. Here are a few of those, mixed in with some things that need to be worked on.
1. Miami battles with adversity.
Down 18 at the half against Purdue, the fan-less Watsco Center forced the Hurricanes to create their own source of energy in order to force a comeback. And unlike previous attempts, a UM squad that didn’t feature their star guard in Lykes prevailed versus the Boilermakers, capturing a 58-54 victory in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
“In the first half, we didn’t share the ball very well, we took more difficult shots than we wanted and we missed those and didn’t get any second-chance points. At halftime, everything changed,” Larranaga said. “We continued to play better and better defense, we rebounded the ball much better and we shared the ball on offense and got much easier shots.”
Regardless of how meaningful that win will be by the end of the season, it’s simply great to see a banged-up ‘Canes team fight through adversity and ultimately get the job done against a Power 5 program.
2. 3-PT shooting emerging as a serious concern.
Counting out the two three-pointers Wong nailed in the final minute of Saturday’s loss versus FGCU, the Hurricanes have shot a pathetic 2 of 34 (5.9%) from beyond the arc in the past two games. Although they were able to deal with it against Purdue – thanks to their second-half offense and all-around solid defense – the Eagles made Miami pay.
FGCU nailed 13 of their 30 three-pointers (43.3%) from deep, a swing of over 30-points that helped them edge past UM.
“We anticipated us shooting the ball better than we did the other night,” Larranaga said post-game.
Things need to change, immediately. The Hurricanes come off a 2019 season where they shot a putrid 28.3% from three-point range last season, the worst in the ACC.
Those numbers will change with Lykes, Cross and Wong, arguably the three best shooters on the team. Mixed in with McGusty, Larranaga should expect improvements soon, but waiting for such can only make things worse.
3. Isaiah Wong emerging as a star guard.
In four games played, Wong has averaged 17.0 points on 46.4% field-goal shooting (team-high), 6.3 rebounds and 1.8 assists. He notched a double-double against Stetson and has scored in the double-digits in all games, including two 20-point outings.
Wong has provided that extra rebounding, is attacking the basket with confidence and overall deems to be a reliable player at all times. Although there are things to work on – 70.6% free-throw shooting, 20.0% three-point shooting – his ability to adapt as a top-target so early on in his sophomore season excites many for the road ahead.
4. Larranaga’s group making adjustments one step at a time.
Against North Florida, it took figuring out how to limit their three-point shooting and outmatch the 2-3 zone. Versus Stetson, it was about not repeating similar mistakes made against the Ospreys and to come out aggressive and not complacent. In their come from behind win against Purdue, it came down to realizing that shooting from deep wasn’t the solution to winning, rather scoring inside and drawing fouls was.
All of this being said, it’s important to note that Larranaga’s group is making slight improvements on a game-by-game basis. Things aren’t perfect, and everyone seems to be taking account of that. Players and coaches have been vocally active in regards to making everyone accountable. Everyone’s goal is identical, it’s all about making the right moves and learning from mistakes.
5. Other than injuries and 3-PT shooting, there’s a reason to be excited about this UM team.
The untapped potential surrounding a healthy UM team could be something unrecognized in Coral Gables for nearly the past decade. From what’s been heard, Earl Timberlake has the potential to be the next big thing, while players like Lykes and McGusty look to close their collegiate careers with a bang.
Add that alongside a rapidly improving Wong-Beverly duo and a paint protector in Nysier Brooks, and this is a legitimate team come March. Of course, that relies on everyone being healthy and finding their groove. If such can happen, Miami’s in for an impressive run.