It’s seemingly alluded to during every Miami Hurricanes pre-game show: injuries have transformed a once NCAA Tournament hopeful program into shambles.
Running on six healthy scholarship players, Jim Larranaga and his staff have had the opposite of a normal season, despite COVID-19 never affecting the team. In the mix of his roster being hurt and one player transferring, Larranaga hasn’t had the privilege to practice as a full unit, which has damaged the development of his team.
Now, after snapping their six-game losing skid that put UM (8-16, 4-15 ACC) 13th in their respective conference, they enter the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament with a need to win out to qualify for a tournament bid.
Aside from the catastrophic injury bug Miami continues to deal with, certain aspects of their gameplan have been exposed, ultimately resulting in a third consecutive losing season.
From running on Isaiah Wong to settling from deep, here my three biggest takeaways of the Hurricanes’ second half of the season.
1. There’s no hiding it: Miami runs everything through Isaiah Wong.
This jingle is far too repetitive for UM, and it’s damaged their offensive spirits.
Wong, a sophomore guard averaging over 17 points per game, mounted 323 shots on the season, 36 shots less than Anthony Walker (78-182) and Kameron McGusty (77-177) combined. That said, it goes to show how relied on the 20-year-old is to score.
Aside from that category, Wong is second in rebounds (119) and assists (54) on the team, thanks to his ability to remain healthy through the course of the season.
All of that said, all of Miami’s ACC victories deem that when Wong receives contributions from his teammates offensively, their likelihood to win increases. Against NC State, 24 points from Wong and 13 from Earl Timberlake put them back at .500. Versus Louisville, UM had two players score above 15 points, while the New Jersey native added 30 in the upset. Then vs. Duke and Boston College, either McGusty or senior Elijah Olaniyi led in scoring, resulting in a ‘Canes victory.
That pattern presents itself as a chance for Larranaga to keep his team’s tournament hopes alive. It doesn’t take a career-high night from Wong to get things rolling, rather an all-around scoring effort from his other scholarship players.
Senior Night at the Watsco Center, which featured 27 points from McGusty and 21 from Nysier Brooks exemplified just that.
“We’re going to be able to go into the ACC tournament feeling a lot better about ourselves than we did,” Larranaga said following the 80-76 win over Boston College. “Once you go into the ACC tournament, everyone’s record is the same, zero and zero, so if we can somehow score 80 points again, I’d be very happy and optimistic that would give us a chance to win the game.”
2. Settling for 3-PT shots has defined UM’s offense.
Miami’s three-point percentage ranks dead last in the ACC (29.4%), yet they’ve found themselves shooting from beyond the arc 459 times, the 10th most in the conference this season.
Still, despite the unpleasing 3-PT shooting put on display, UM found themselves shooting at least 15 shots from deep a night since their 80-76 loss to Virginia Tech back in early February.
This comes heavily due to the absence of Chris Lykes, who last season, helped Miami escape from certain situations where Miami’s offense wasn’t flowing. With Lykes out, opposing teams tend to sit in a 2-3 zone, where either Wong or sophomore Harlond Beverly, who’s now out for the season with a back injury, attempt to drive inside and create contact. But when neither can convert and the shot-clock winds-down, it forces the Hurricanes’ fatigued group to settle.
However, there have been times where UM has simply put themselves in a trap of their own. Against No. 21 ranked Virginia, things remain closed in the first half, thanks to their 18 points in the paint. A monumental spark came in the 6:52 mark, where Brooks and McGusty used a 6-0 run strictly in made layups to garner a 26-24 advantage. But with a steal on the other end and a chance to add fuel to the fire, UM’s Olaniyi rushed into a three-pointer with plenty of time left on the shot clock. Missing it, Virginia took it on a fastbreak and converted from deep to regain the lead.
Although it doesn’t seem like much on paper, that shot took the ‘Canes out of some much-needed rhythm and ignited the Cavaliers to take a 41-30 lead at the half en route to a 61-52 win.
Unnecessary shots like those have been a cornerstone to UM’s forgettable season. But with a chance to erase those thoughts in the ACC tournament, keeping this in mind could give Miami a shot to compete with the best.
3. Not enough awareness for Nysier Brooks inside.
The word around town was that the Cincinnati transfer was the X-factor to what this team had hoped to accomplish, providing the length and defensive presence needed. At 7-feet, Brooks upgraded Miami’s depth at the five spot and was bound to make things smoother when it came to attacking the glass. However, his impact simply hasn’t been what was expected.
In an average of 26.7 minutes per game, Brooks finds himself shooting just nearly five times a game, the sixth most on the team. This isn’t because he can’t find a way to score, considering his team-high 50.1 field-goal percentage, but because he isn’t targeted enough.
Other then UM’s 87-60 loss to Georgia Tech, in games where Brooks scores in the double-digits, Miami has either won or loss by single-digits. The most recent same was Senior Night, where his 8-of-11 shooting resulted in 21 points and a win.
The expectation is for Miami to continue feeding the big-man inside in their first-round contest against No. 12 seeded Pittsburgh. Having a variety of scoring options not only eases the load for Wong, but almost always results in success for the Hurricanes.