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Miami seeking a repeat appearance in NCAA for first time under Larranaga

November 1, 2016 Columns No Comments

Miami’s 2016-17 roster breaks down neatly with half of the 10 returning scholarship players returning veterans and the other half newcomers.

Senior guard Davon Reed has a message for the latter five.

“I’ve made it plain and clear that I’m not trying to go backwards,” he said at a meeting with local media a couple of days before he and teammate and classmate Kamari Murphy took off with Hurricanes coach Jim Larranaga for the Atlantic Coast Conference Media Days in Charlotte, North Carolina. “What my expectations for this team are I see that we have the talent to be back in the NCAA Tournament and be one of the top tier teams in this league.

“But it’s not going to be just given to us. I’ve been on a team my first year that wasn’t that great. So I’ve seen the bottom of the pack, the middle of the pack, and the top of the pack.

“I just want to stress to the guys what it takes.”

Miami, which reached the NCAA Regional semifinals last spring where it lost to eventual national champion Villanova, has not made repeat NCAA appearances since the late 1990s, when the Hurricanes made the field for the 1998, 1999, and 2000 events. They have since been in the tourney three times, but never in consecutive seasons.

In fact, only once did they make it to the postseason at all after playing playing in the NCAA the year before. That was in 2009, when they were in the NIT field the year after winning a first-round NCAA game in 2008.

After losing in the first round of the 2002 NCAA they, they were 11-17 the next year. Following their ACC championship season and Sweet 16 appearance in 2013, they eked out a winning record at 17-16 the next season but were not in the postseason.

But the 2014 team that missed out on the NIT as well as the NCAA was facing a complete rebuilding job following the loss of its top six scorers and rebounders, including one (guard Shane Larkin) to the NBA draft, from the 2013 champions.

The 2016-17 Miami team returns its No. 3 and 4 scorers from last spring’s Sweet 16 team in Reed (11.1 ppg) and guard Ja’Quan Newton (10.5) along with the No. 2 rebounder in Murphy (6.0 rpg). Together Reed and Murphy had 63 starts, and Newton was one of the top Sixth Men in the ACC along with making one start.

Throw in sophomores Anthony Lawrence (33 games) and Ebuku Izundu (15) and Larranaga has something to build around coming off a 27-8 campaign that included a 13-5 record and top four finish in the ACC.

Joining them are a solid recruiting class that features an McDonald’s All-American in Dewan Huell, the school’s first since Darius Rice in 2000 and fourth overall in program history (Steven Edwards 1992 and Tito Horford 1985).

Huell, a 6-10 forward out of Miami Norland High, likely will get the most attention early on, but a couple of other signees have been impressive in early practices.

Bruce Brown is a 6-5 freshman guard from Boston who spent last season at Vermont Academy in Saxton’s River, Vermont. Larranaga likens him to former Hurricane guard Durand Scott, a key figure in the 2012-13 team that won the ACC tourney after finishing first in the regular season.

“He’s a Durand Scott-type lovable character,” Larranaga said. “He smiles all the time. He’s seriously athletic. He’s great in the open court because he can get to the rim — I won’t say easily because I don’t think anything is easy — but effectively he can get to the rim and use his right hand, left hand, and use hang time to create a shot that most players can’t make.

“He works very hard defensively, and he’s our leader guard rebounder in practice right now, so I expect him to help us on the board as well.”

The other interesting newcomer is Dejan Vasilevic, a 6-3 combo guard out of Melbourne, Australia, who Larranaga describes as “seriously good.”

“Offensively, I’m very, very comfortable where he is,” Larranaga said. “He’s going to be able to score the ball and share the ball and handle the ball. He’s smart. He knows how to play.

“His challenge is going to be at the defensive end of the floor because he’s now facing guys who are a little bit bigger than him and a little more athletic than he is, a little older and more experienced. So he has to use his savvy and cleverness that we see on offense we’re going to need to see it defensively as well.”

The other newcomers are freshman are Rodney Miller, a 7-0 center out of Laurelton, New York, who spent last season at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia, and junior Rashad Muhammad, a 6-6 guard who sat out last season after transferring from San Jose State. Muhammad has beefed up from 157 to 184 pounds and is working his way into the offense.

Muhammad averaged 13.9 points a game as a sophomore at San Jose State in 2014-15, but Larranaga would like to see him increase his rebound production from the 3.3 he averaged a game for the Spartans and — of course — increase his toughness on the defensive end.

Another transfer, 6-8 forward Michael Gilmore from Virginia Commonwealth, will sit out this season per NCAA rules, and the roster also includes a couple of walk-ons, guard Mike Robinson and forward Chris Stowell who played in nine games apiece last season.

“I think the strength of our program over the last five years has been ball screens, and we’re going to continue to utilize a lot of ball screens,” Larranaga said when asked about the potential strengths for this club. “But we also have some guys who are excellent straight-line drivers.

“If you open up the court and give them some space to work with, they can really get to the rim. Ja’Quan Newton, Davon Reed, Anthony Lawrence, Bruce Brown, D.J. Vasilevic — those five guys in particular are very, very good at beating their man and getting to the rim and creating problems for the defense.”

Overall, then, if things develop as expected, the Hurricanes look to have a good shot at making their way back into the NCAA field when teams are selected next spring. They were picked Wednesday to finish ninth in the 15-team ACC race.

Larranaga, who is beginning his sixth season in Coral Gables, said he had seen one preseason publication that listed 10 teams from the ACC making the 68-team field.

“That is a lofty goal, getting 10 teams in,” Larranaga said. “But I have a hard time figuring out who they’re leaving out because the teams are so deep and so talented right now that 11, 12, 13 are also going to be very capable of competing with the best teams in the country.”

But, yes, his Hurricanes were among those mentioned.

“But I don’t think that means anything,” he said, “because they could have just substituted one of those teams they didn’t put in there and it would have been just as strong a field.”

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