A couple of weeks ago, Jim Larranaga would have said that his new-look Miami Hurricanes squad is as deep as it gets. But in 2020 fashion, things changed quickly.
Heading into the Watsco Center for their season opener against North Florida on Sunday, the Hurricanes will have already been affected by injuries before stepping onto a court for a real game.
While UM returns nine scholarship players, redshirt senior forward and returning starter Sam Waardenburg will miss the entire 2020-21 season with a foot injury.
“We’ve got a very good team when we’re healthy, but we’ve already run into some injury problems that will impact us,” Larranaga said. “Hopefully, our guys will recover from their injuries and we’ll be at full strength before too long.”
Miami’s past season was derailed by injuries, but heading into the new year — in which they were picked to finish seventh in the ACC — they are eager to win and make it back to the NCAA Tournament.
Here are a few things to look out for before the season tips off.
The Hurricanes have been in the gym since July 20, but for the first “four to six weeks” they did not do a single drill that included both the offense and defense.
There was no “face-to-face competition” and the offensive drills included simply skills training and shooting. As for defense, it was without a ball, simply working on conditioning and prioritizing defensive slides.
Since October 14 — the first official practice date of the season — UM has been able to organize practice similarly to past seasons.
Starters to vary through time.
With Waardenburg out for the season, Miami is tasked with finding a new starting forward. In the mix for the spot is redshirt junior Deng Gak, sophomore Anthony Walker, and freshmen Earl Timberlake and Matt Cross.
The Hurricanes have had the opportunity to practice, but Larranaga said there have been at least two or three players out for every practice.
Gak, who stands at 6-foot-11, comes off of back-to-back years in which he suffered season-ending knee injuries. Walker, who will play Sunday, missed about four weeks of practice with a knee injury. Timberlake, the highly touted freshman, has been dealing with injuries.
“Earl was practicing very well but he’s now had some nagging injuries that have kept him out of practice which then disturbs your routine,” Larranaga said. “Earl’s going to have to kind of get himself back healthy first and then back in shape and then back within the chemistry of the team both on offense and defense.”
Based on what I’ve heard, here is a prediction for the starting lineup versus North Florida:
PG: Chris Lykes
SG: Isaiah Wong
SF: Kameron McGusty
PF: Matt Cross
C: Nysier Brooks
Cross has been healthy throughout all the practices and has received praise from Larranaga for his improvement on both offense and defense. Timberlake will likely be the go-to forward later in the season, but Cross will get the nod to tip off the season. Lykes, Wong and McGusty should mesh well on offense this season now that they’ve all played together for over a year. And for Brooks, he’ll provide a much-needed presence on defense, as he blocked 51 shots as a junior at Cincinnati.
Defense is the priority.
The Hurricanes gave up an average of 73.2 points per game last the season — the 266th most in the NCAA. And if health allows, Larranaga wants to clean up the mistakes on defense.
UM had to transition from man-to-man to zone defense last season due to a lack of players and height. The defense was most exposed when Vernon Carey Jr. scored 24 points on near-perfect shooting in Miami’s blowout home loss to Duke.
With Brooks in the lineup, redshirt senior Rodney Miller Jr. now having a year of real-game experience and Gak being healthy, the Hurricanes should have a better presence in the paint. UM has the 10th-tallest roster in the country and ranks fifth at the Power Five level.
Lykes has been phenomenal on offense in his three years at Miami, however, his defense has lacked. Coach L says the 5-foot-7 Lykes has improved as an on-ball/individual defender this offseason, but needs to be a much better off-ball/team defender. If Lykes can excel on both ends of the floor this season, not only will Miami will be in much better shape, his draft stock will rise dramatically.
Non-conference scheduling should provide a boost.
Miami’s first six games, five of which are non-conference matches, will all be played at in Coral Gables. Not only will this help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and a potential shutdown of the team, but it’ll help UM adapt to basketball in 2020.
Many arenas, including the Watsco Center, will not be allowing fans to be in the stands this season. Of course, this will be a new experience for just about every team in the country. But for Miami, not only will they be able to shoot on their home rims for six straight games, but they’ll adapt to the no fan environment and be ready when they step into a similar scenario later in the season.