Not that Jim Larranaga isn’t smart enough to figure all this out, but he enters the 2016-17 season facing questions he’s never had before.
The Hurricanes coach, coming off his second Sweet 16 appearance in four seasons, has a brand new roster once again. Unlike his rebuild of 2013’s ACC championship and Sweet 16 squad, he also has talent — namely, the first top-10 recruiting class in program history.
He may not know what to do with it until December.
“I think there’s a lot of question marks right now,” Larranaga said as the Hurricanes began summer workouts with six players who were brand new to the program. “I don’t think there’s any way to know who’s in our starting lineup [right now].”
Last year, the roles seemed well defined. He had a bulldog point guard (Angel Rodriguez), a go-to scorer (Sheldon McClellan) and an athletic 7-footer (Tonye Jekiri) holding down the middle. He had valuable complementary players in 3-man Davon Reed and 4-man Kamari Murphy.
Now he’s counting on his sixth man, junior combo guard Ja’Quan Newton, to take over the point. He needs Reed and Murphy to provide senior leadership. He’ll need a host of untested players to grow up in a hurry. The faster they do, the faster Miami will compete for another league title.
All ACC predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2016-17 Preview Magazine, available in our online store and on newsstands everywhere.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Jim Larranaga
2015-16 RECORD (ACC): 27–8 (13–5)
2015-16 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Villanova 92–69 in the Sweet 16
2016-17 PREDICTION: Eighth in ACC
F Ivan Cruz Uceda (5.4 ppg, 2.6 rpg)
C Tonye Jekiri (7.5 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 1.0 bpg)
G Sheldon McClellan (16.3 ppg, 3.2 rpg)
G James Palmer (3.4 ppg, 1.1 rpg)
G Angel Rodriguez (12.6 ppg, 4.5 apg)
No one on the roster has the build or defensive presence of Jekiri, the 7'0", 250-pounder who made the ACC’s All-Defensive Team twice. In fact, the largest regular is sophomore Ebuka Izundu, who stands 6'10" and 210 pounds. Izundu, who like Jekiri came from Nigeria to play high school ball in the U.S., has greater hops and much more offensive game than his predecessor at the 5. “I’ll be very disappointed if he doesn’t play at a high level,” Larranaga says. However, Izundu needs to prove he won’t be pushed around by ACC big men — after playing last season at around 210 pounds — and defend without fouling.
The most veteran frontcourt player is Murphy, who proved to be an active defender and rebounder (6.0 rpg) in his Miami debut last year. The Brooklyn native, formerly of Oklahoma State, is the type of get-in-your-face leader Reed and Newton aren’t.
Miami won’t be able to keep top-25 recruit Dewan Huell on the bench for long, and the Canes may team the five-star freshman with Murphy to create a pair of springy big men. Freshman center Rodney Miller has bulk and comes from heralded Virginia prep program Oak Hill, but he may be too raw to play in the heat of the ACC schedule. VCU transfer Michael Gilmore, a stretch-4, will sit out a year.
Newton is an aggressive layup-maker, but he needs to improve his outside shooting (34.6 percent from 3) and, most important, his assist-to-turnover ratio (2.5-to-2.1). He’ll play major minutes, as will the versatile Reed, who averaged 11.1 points per game last season. If Newton falters at the point, 6'7" swingman Anthony Lawrence Jr. might get a crack at handling the ball instead of playing one of the forward spots. He had a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in limited minutes last year, and like Reed he can guard 1-through-4.
Though he’s new, the Hurricanes believe five-star freshman Bruce Brown could be an impact player in Year 1. “He’s a tremendous competitor,” Larranaga says.
Rashad Muhammad, the brother of NBA swingman Shabazz, is eligible after transferring from San Jose State. He’s an excellent deep shooter but with his thin frame won’t be banging around much. Australian freshman Dejan Vasiljevic, a veteran of his country’s international tournaments, will compete for time as Newton’s backup.
This may be the most talented recruiting class in program history. Five-star prospects Bruce Brown and Dewan Huell will play major minutes at guard and forward, respectively. Australian Dejan Vasiljevic is a heady point guard who will come off the bench. Four-star center Rodney Miller could redshirt as he adjusts to the pace of ACC play. There’s also Rashad Muhammad, who sat out after transferring from San Jose State. He’ll battle Brown for the starting 2-guard spot.
Larranaga has recruited well enough that it’s hard to see the Hurricanes sliding to the bottom third of the league any time soon, but this roster is so green and undefined that it seems tough to put the Canes among the league’s legitimate title contenders. The best-case scenario: The talented freshmen find their sea legs quickly, suddenly making Miami one of the deeper, more balanced teams in the league.
If Newton becomes an All-ACC-caliber distributor and scorer, and the Hurricanes can find a way to defend against bigger opponents, they will be a tough out in March. If Larranaga still doesn’t know whom he can count on by January, they will be out of the NCAA Tournament.