At this time last year, coach Jim Larranaga had a team of unknowns. He had three returning players, one of whom was injured, and nine newcomers who had never worn the Hurricanes uniform. He had little idea what to expect.
He does now. Almost everyone returns from a group that reached as high as No. 15 in the polls and reached the NIT final. Not only that, but the Hurricanes also added a talented transfer at forward, a position of need. A midseason slide cost Miami an NCAA Tournament berth last year, but anything less than a trip to the NCAAs this March will be a major disappointment.
All ACC predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, available online and on newsstands everywhere.
Podcast: Who should be No. 1 in College Basketball in 2015-16?
After shouldering a heavy load last year, Tonye Jekiri has a little help. The 7-footer from Nigeria landed on the ACC All-Defensive Team after leading the conference in rebounding (9.9 rpg) and finishing fifth with 1.4 blocks per game. He also chipped in 8.6 points while playing 30.3 minutes per game. That workload was possible because he learned how to defend without fouling. Not bad for a player entering his sixth season of basketball. He’s not in the category of Jahlil Okafor, Montrezl Harrell or Rakeem Christmas, but with those players gone, Jekiri could be on of the ACC’s best all-around big man and become an NBA Draft pick if he continues to round out his game.
Who will start next to him is another matter. UM has high hopes for Kamari Murphy, a 6'8", 216-pound forward who excels at defense and dunking. The high flyer sat out last year after transferring from Oklahoma State, where he averaged slightly more than six points, six boards and one block two seasons ago. Now a fourth-year junior, Murphy should be an immediate contributor on defense and in the transition game. If he proves he can score, he’ll see most of the work.
Senior Ivan Cruz Uceda has considerable offensive potential but was limited last year because of poor conditioning. It was especially tough for Uceda; after the Madrid native transferred from junior college, he was ineligible for 16 games and was then thrown into the fire of January conference play. Uceda brings a crafty touch inside and is unafraid to shoot from the perimeter (62 of his 99 attempts were 3s). The senior needs work defensively.
Miami Facts & Figures
Last season: 25-13, 10-8
Postseason: NIT runner-up
Last NCAA Tournament: 2013
ACC Projection: Seventh
Postseason projection: First Round
This group includes one of the ACC’s most gifted scorers, a strong point guard, a versatile defender and two sophomores with lots of offensive ability.
Leading scorer Sheldon McClellan, who averaged 14.5 points per game while shooting 48.4 percent from the field, could play himself into an NBA Draft spot with night-in, night-out consistency. The 6'5" senior from Houston can score in a variety of ways, though he’s best slashing to the hoop or throwing down alley-oops.
UM hopes McClellan’s running mate, point guard Angel Rodriguez, won’t repeat his roller-coaster season. The 5'11" senior shot down Florida and Duke early in the year but suffered a catastrophic slump that left him with a pedestrian 11.9 points-per-game average (to go with 3.9 assists and 1.8 steals).
At 6'6", junior Davon Reed guards four positions and is one of the league’s most efficient shooters (1.51 points per attempt, 8.2 points per game). UM will start him in a three-guard lineup.
The Hurricanes lost two guards to transfer but should handle those losses well. Manu Lecomte (Baylor), a strong perimeter shooter, and Deandre Burnett (Ole Miss) were in and out of the lineup. Sophomore combo guard Ja’Quan Newton and sophomore wing James Palmer are ready for larger roles. Newton, a slasher, needs to improve his outside shooting, while Larranaga wants more defense and rebounding from Palmer.
Key Losses: G Deandre Burnett, G Manu Lecomte
Top Players: G Angel Rodriguez, G Sheldon McClellan, G Davon Reed, F Kamari Murphy, C Tonye Jekiri
Kamari Murphy’s D-and-dunk game could have helped Miami last year, but he sat out after transferring from Oklahoma State. The 6'8" junior needs to improve his shot but will be an immediate contributor on defense and in transition. With a veteran-heavy rotation, the Canes can afford to take it slow with their two freshmen: 6'10" Nigerian Ebuka Izundu, who is a skinny project in the mold of Tonye Jekiri, and 6'7" wing Anthony Lawrence Jr.
Miami has a chance to muscle its way into the top 25 and stay there. The Canes are on the outside of the league’s elite but should battle Notre Dame, Louisville, Florida State and NC State for next-tier supremacy. In a league this strong, that’s not a consolation prize; that means you’re headed to the NCAA Tournament. That’s where Miami should be going, given its strength in the middle and in the backcourt. Comparisons will be drawn between this team and the 2012-13 squad that surprised the bluebloods by winning the ACC title. This group doesn’t appear to be quite that strong, but it should be a fun season in Coral Gables nonetheless.