Last season was the most successful season in Miami basketball history. The Hurricanes won the ACC regular season championship, followed that up with an ACC tournament title, and then earned a number two seed in the NCAA tournament where the Hurricanes made it all the way to the Sweet 16 before losing to Marquette.
It’s funny how fast things can change in just one year. Miami has gotten off to a rough start this season and fell to 5-4 Wednesday night after a 60-49 loss to Nebraska in which Miami played its worst game of the season. It doesn’t get any easier for the Hurricanes from here on out as they open ACC play this Sunday against Virginia Tech in Coral Gables. Inconsistency has been the story of Miami’s season so far, something I expected with such a huge roster turnover from a season ago.
To recap the season up to this point, Miami was upset in its season opener at home against St. Francis, losing 66-62 in double overtime. The Hurricanes then struggled again in their next game and needed overtime to squeak past Georgia Southern by a point. They responded after those two losses though and defeated Texas Southern and Charleston by a combined 31 points but then the inconsistency reared its head again. Miami lost to UCF at home by five and then lost to George Washington in overtime in the first round of the Wooden Legacy in Fullerton, California. But then again Miami rebounded. The Hurricanes defeated Cal State Fullerton by two and followed that up by upsetting Arizona State by three in its final game in Fullerton.
Then came the Big Ten/ACC Challenge Wednesday night against Nebraska. If you’ve been following the pattern closely so far then you would have guessed that Miami would struggle in Lincoln. The Hurricanes managed just 13 first half points, trailed by as many as 16, and shot an abysmal 32 percent from the floor. Nobody but Rion Brown could make a basket. Brown scored 25 of Miami’s 49 points while making eight of 14 shots. Everyone else? 24 points on just eight of 36 shooting.
The main reason for Miami’s inconsistency this season has been, well, its inconsistency on offense. The Hurricanes had a huge turnover from a season ago as Julian Gamble, Reggie Johnson, Kenny Kadji, Trey McKinney Jones, and Durand Scott all graduated, and leading scorer Shane Larkin entered the NBA draft and was drafted 18th overall by the Atlanta Hawks (and later traded to the Mavericks). Those were Miami’s six leading scorers in 2012-2013. As a result Miami’s shooting percentage is down from 45.3 percent to 40.6 percent this season. Last year Miami had players like Larkin and Scott who could create their own shots but also create shots for others. That’s something Miami has been lacking through its first nine games.
The only rotation players who are still on the roster that played a season ago are Brown, Raphael Akpejiori, Tonye Jekiri, and Erik Swoope, and only Brown averaged more than 20 minutes per game. After averaging just 6.4 points per game a season ago, Brown leads Miami is scoring so far this season at 13.8 points per game. Brown was a lethal three-point shooter at times last season but he’s struggled from beyond the ark so far this year, shooting the three at just 26.2 percent.
Miami hasn’t exactly found replacements along its front line for Johnson and Gamble through its first nine games either. After playing in just 18 games a season ago, Akpejiori has played just 24 minutes in five games this season as a senior. Then there is senior forward Erik Swoope who, despite playing in all nine games this season, also can’t find productive minutes on the floor for Miami. He’s scoring just 1.8 points per game on 31.3 percent shooting and is only playing 9.8 minutes per night as a result. Jekiri is a sophomore center that has played in all nine games but has only started one game since starting the first three. He’s a seven footer that the coaching staff believes has promise but he’s been an inconsistent part of the offense to this point. He’s just fifth on the team in rebounding at 3.9 per game and is averaging just 3.1 points per game on 37.1 percent shooting. His struggles have his minutes down to 16.6 minutes per game, which is seventh on the team.
You’re probably asking if these players from a season ago aren’t Miami’s main contributors this year then who are? Those would be some of Miami’s new additions.
Remember Garrius Adams? After missing all of last season rehabbing an injured knee, Adams has returned to Miami’s perimeter as its second leading scorer. He’s averaging 10.7 points per game but is struggling from the field like Brown. He’s shooting just 33 percent and a horrid 19.4 percent from beyond the arc. I wasn’t kidding when I said Miami’s biggest problem has been its offensive efficiency. Adams and Brown are the only two players averaging more than 10 points per game this season but they’re both shooting under 40 percent from the floor. Miami had three players average double digits a season ago, with all three shooting over 45 percent.
Another familiar face that has returned is forward Donnavan Kirk. Kirk transferred from Miami to DePaul after the 2010 season but transferred back to UM this past offseason. Kirk only played 26 combined minutes in four appearances as a freshman in 2009-2010 season but has started every game for Miami this year while averaging 30 minutes a night. Kirk has been Miami’s most productive front court player so far and is averaging 9.2 points per game while pulling down 6.3 rebounds and blocking two shots a night. Miami’s other contributor along its frontline has been junior college transfer James Kelly. Kelly has been productive alongside Kirk, scoring nine points per game on 55.9 percent shooting while grabbing five rebounds a night.
While Miami does have some experience in its frontcourt, the backcourt is very young. Since head coach Jim Larranaga decided to hold out Kansas State transfer Angel Rodriguez this season he’s had to turn to freshman guards Davon Reed and Manu LeComte. LeComte started the first six games of the season at point guard while Reed has started the last three. The two have been productive, averaging a combined 15.9 points per game, and both are playing over 26 minutes a night in a young rotation. However, like Brown and Adams, both players are also shooting under 40 percent. Shot selection has been a problem for most of the team as four of Miami’s six leading scorers are shooting under 40 percent.
Losing Larkin early to the draft and five other players to graduation was a big blow for Miami, especially offensively. The offense has struggled without a consistent playmaker on the floor like Larkin or Scott and that explains why Miami is shooting just over 40 percent as a team through its first nine games. Five of Miami’s six leading scorers this year didn’t play a minute for the Hurricanes a season ago and with that inexperience comes growing pains and mistakes. It’s going to be a tough year for Miami in the ACC but I expect improvement from its young players throughout the season. Larranaga is a fantastic coach and I believe he’ll keep them competitive in most games. Despite the offensive struggles Wednesday night against Nebraska the Hurricanes still fought their way back and cut the deficit to five before the Cornhuskers pulled away late.
Without consistent scoring though Miami will struggle to win games in one of the toughest conference in the country and will most likely finish in the bottom third of the ACC. The biggest goal for Miami this season needs to be the development of its young talent. Miami is young and will continue to be young for the next couple of years. The good news for Miami fans is that Larranaga has the 29th ranked recruiting class according to ESPN for the 2014-2015 season. If this year’s young core can grow and develop this season it’ll be a big boost for the program that has more young players arriving in 2014. Miami may have a bright future ahead but it just won’t be this season.
PREDICTION: 5-13, 12th in the ACC