Key Returners: Bruce Brown, Ja'Quan Newton, Anthony Lawrence, Dewan Huell, Dejan Vasiljevic
Key Losses: Davon Reed, Kamari Murphy
Key Newcomers: Lonnie Walker IV, Chris Lykes, Deng Gak, Sam Waardenburg
Outlook: With so many ACC schools recently coming under fire by the NCAA (Syracuse, UNC, Louisville), it’s refreshing to write about a nice clean program like Miami! It’s pretty wild for Miami (FL) to be the subject of that statement…but here we are. Jimmy Larranaga’s boys will be a force to be reckoned with this year, riding two potential NBA draft picks on the wings (provided that star freshman Lonnie Walker is healthy) to follow in the footsteps of 2017 selection Davon Reed.
Quick, important note on Walker - he tore his meniscus in mid-July, and while his current timetable puts him in line to be ready for the start of the season, a torn meniscus can be a fickle mistress (menis-tress?). We'll have to wait and see whether the jewel of Larranaga's recruiting class will be ready to start from Day 1, as expected.
Given good health, Walker and Bruce Brown, along with returning point guard Ja'Quan Newton, will spearhead a perimeter-oriented attack that frequently uses pick-and-rolls to create opportunities in the halfcourt, whether it be for the ball-handler himself or to get the defense rotating via a skip pass. Miami ran the 13th-highest percentage of PnR in the country, per Synergy, running some variation of the play on 33.7% of its possessions. That attack will again be appealing to Larranaga because he has three real threats as ball-handlers. Aside - I would like to see Jimbo let his team attack in transition more frequently. Miami plays at one of the slowest tempos in the ACC, but with the skilled stable of guards on hand in Coral Gables, they could be vicious in the open floor.
Newton will have the rock most often, and though he struggled with turnovers, he has a knack for drawing contact on the way to the rim. Brown, aka Mayor of Sophomore Breakout City, USA, flashed a lot of potential as a freshman in these situations, showing skills as both a pull-up three-point shooter and an adept distributor. Finally, Walker is an explosive vertical athlete, and he is sturdy enough to bounce off defenders as he gets into the lane. He lags behind Brown in his vision and decision-making, though, so he’ll be the third ball-handling option of the ‘Canes’ Big Perimeter Three. Chris Lykes, a 5’7 freshman dynamo (he's gonna be fun, folks), will see some time off the bench, too – though his frame will inevitably make him a liability on the defensive end.
Perhaps the best reason to run Newton as the primary handler is that Brown, Walker, bench gunner Dejan Vasiljevic, and guard/forward Anthony Lawrence can all stretch the floor around the main action; Newton’s lack of shooting allows his defender to sag and be more disruptive off the ball. However, the bad news on Newton: per Hooplens, he was the team's worst player by net rating, posting a paltry +1.1 per 100 possessions (that's bad on an NCAA Tourney team) and dragging the offense down to 1.02ppp when on the floor. His turnovers and poor finishing really took their toll, and it's probably not a coincedence that the team clinched its tourney bid in a 3-game span when Newton didn't play (wins vs. Virginia, @Clemson, vs. Georgia Tech). For this reason, many think the 'Canes might be better off with Brown running the show, and the stats back it up: over 500+ possessions with Newton off the floor and Brown on it, Miami was +29 points per 100 possessions - they essentially turned into "16-17 Gonzaga vs. the rest of the WCC" when Brown ran the show:
Elsewhere in the system, the Hurricanes lose their best dive man with the graduation of Kamari Murphy, but both Dewan Huell and Ebuka Izundu have potential in this role. Huell in particular is intriguing: as a classmate of Brown’s and fellow Breakout City resident, he has excellent size and authoritative finishing skills around the rim, both of which bode well as a dive man in PnR. Incoming freshman Deng Gak is another option, but he’s mostly upside as he adapts to the speed and physicality of the game.
Defensively, Larranaga favors a switching man-to-man, but when Lykes or Vasiljevic is on the floor, he will likely switch to a zone in an effort to hide their defensive “short”comings (sorry, Mr. Lykes). Brown, Newton, Walker, and Lawrence are all interchangeable defensively, and more minutes for Huell (a good rim protector) should amp up an already solid interior defense. Defensive rebounding is a concern, particularly when playing zone, as the departed Murphy was the only above average player in that department, while both Huell and Izundu underperformed compared to their raw size. It will need to be a by-committee effort unless the bigs show a greater mean streak this season. As they do offensively, Miami’s D will keep it a halfcourt game, emphasizing transition defense to force opponents to score against their set defense, be it zone or man.
Bottom Line: Miami has the backcourt talent to be an extremely successful team in a college game that often rewards great guardplay over everything else. Newton will need to be more efficient (or cede more playmaking to Brown and Walker), but the stingy defense should keep the ‘Canes competitive even when the halfcourt offense sputters. Expect some great highlight reel dunks from the two NBA-caliber wings, and if Larranaga pushes the right buttons offensively, Miami will challenge for the conference crown.