Basketball: 10 questions for the 2016-17 Miami Hurricanes

Davon Reed (left), Ja'Quan Newton and Ebuka Izundu, shown walking off the court after falling to eventual national champion Villanova in last year's Sweet 16, will start for UM this year. (Getty Images)

Davon Reed (left), Ja’Quan Newton and Ebuka Izundu, shown walking off the court after falling to eventual national champion Villanova in last year’s Sweet 16, will start for UM this year. (Getty Images)

[Top-100 recruits Lykes, Gak sign with UM]

[Rashad Muhammad suspended to start season]

[Miami sells out for the second year in a row]

Some years are easier than others for coaches. Last year, Jim Larranaga had three reliable, battle-tested seniors at key positions, and enough experience around them to make a Sweet 16 run.

This year, he has a roster with potential but few sure things. He is a coach who always seems to figure it out, but it could take him a while to do so this season, which begins Friday against Western Carolina (7 p.m., ESPN3.com).

“It’s a young team that’s practicing very hard,” Larranaga said. “Their effort has been very good. They just have so much to learn about themselves and each other and what we expect out of them.”

Put another way:

“We’re a little raw,” Larranaga said. “We need to cook a little longer. We’re too tough. We don’t have smoothness in anything we do, offensively or defensively.”

We’re wondering about the ingredients of this recipe, too. A few questions for the Hurricanes, in no particular order:

Can they play defense? Starting two-guard Davon Reed and four-man Kamari Murphy have shown they can defend, both on the ball and in a system. Three-man Anthony Lawrence is versatile and long. Beyond that, it’s a mixed bag. Center Ebuka Izundu, like Lawrence, has potential but hasn’t played enough minutes for anyone to say he’s capable defensively. Point guard Ja’Quan Newton isn’t known for his defense, or his commitment to playing it. None of the freshmen or transfer wing Rashad Muhammad have seen action for UM yet (and Muhammad and guard DJ Vasiljevic are likely to be offensive, not defensive weapons).

Can Davon Reed be the man? He’ll probably lead Miami in scoring, as he assumes Sheldon McClellan’s spot as the starting two-guard. Last year’s third-leading scorer (11.1) is clearly the Hurricanes’ leader in the locker room, by virtue of his experience — he is the only player on the team entering his fourth year at UM — and his maturity. But can he take over games in crunch time? Will he get those big buckets, as did McClellan and Angel Rodriguez?

Is Ja’Quan Newton ready to run the show? He was a complimentary scorer and backup point last year, and performed admirably in that role — until a three-game suspension sidetracked his season. Newton (10.5 ponts, 2.5 assists) was in the running for the ACC’s sixth man of the year award until he fell off, thanks in part to a knee injury Feb. 20 and a team-issued suspension a week later. In his final nine games, he averaged 6.7 points on 17-of-50 shooting. Newton can score and handle the ball, but Larranga said his adjustment to the role of full-time point has been “more challenging than I anticipated.” Reed, Lawrence, highly touted freshman guard Bruce Brown, and Vasiljevic can put the ball on the floor (Brown is currently the backup point). Miami was seventh in the ACC in turnovers, and it could be worse this year as the Hurricanes find their post-Rodiguez, post-McClellan offensive identity.

How much will a lack of frontcourt bulk hurt? Freshman center Rodney Miller, by far the biggest player on the roster at 7-feet and 258 pounds, has to reshape his body before he’s ready for major minutes. If Miami had more than 10 scholarship players, he would be a redshirt candidate. The heaviest player after Miller is the 6-10 Izundu, who is trying to reach 230. Certain teams might be able to push around Miami in the paint and on the glass. Who could be the toughest matchups? Duke has a ridiculous collection of size and athleticism, Virginia will protect the rim and rebound, North Carolina State is always big, and Louisville, with several NBA prospects in its frontcourt, might become the best defensive team in the country.

Will they struggle on the boards? Reed (6-6, 220) and Brown (6-5, 190) have the strength, size and athleticism to be very good rebounding guards, and Lawrence (a strong 6-7, 210) can get his at the 3 or 4. Five-star freshman Dewan Huell (6-11, 220) is long and springy, but he’s new to this; the savvier, stronger ACC big men might push him around. It can’t be all Murphy (6-8, 220), who grabbed 6.0 boards per game last year, and Izundu, who averaged 5.3 minutes per game last year as a freshman. Miami was 115th in rebound margin with the now-graduated Tonye Jekiri (8.6) handling a lot of the load.

Can Kamari Murphy raise his game? As in, can he be more than a defense-and-dunks guy?  Does he have an offensive game beyond the paint? Murphy fires up the crowd with his loud finishes, but if he can make short-range jumpers consistently, that would take some of the pressure off Lawrence, who will be relied on to score, and Miami’s backcourt. Murphy isn’t likely to start knocking down 16-footers, but a few 12-to-14-footers here and there would help. He should improve on last year’s season highs in points (11), makes (5) and attempts (9).

How much will they get out of Ebuka Izundu? He’s not Jekiri, in the sense that he’s not a 7-foot, 250-pound man who can muscle opponents and grab every rebound he sees. He runs the floor better, has more range and more hops. That might help him be a better shot-blocker than Jekiri, but he must rebound more and develop the confidence in his offensive game, which features a consistent lefty jump-hook. That took Jekiri a while to figure out, too. Izundu and Lawrence must become reliable contributors for Miami to compete in the ACC.

Who among the second unit will play the most? The bet here is Brown, who admits he has to learn how to defend better but brings a hard-edged, physical style and has great athleticism (40-inch vertical leap, 300-pound bench press). He also has plenty of confidence, as a 19-year-old freshman who played in the elite prep ball in New England. Huell should steadily come on as he learns how to use his body against college players. Like Brown, he will produce highlight-reel plays, but his coaches will hope for consistency. Vasiljevic (6-3, 195) and Muhammad (6-6, 185) will play as much as their defense allows. Both can score, though Muhammad is a gunner and Vasiljevic can make plays. Miller has more skill than UM’s other big men, but his conditioning and strength will limit him.

How will they use their last scholarship? After signing two top-100 players — point guard Chris Lykes and four-man Deng Gak — and holding a spot for New Zealand forward Sam Waardenburg, UM has one scholarship to give for 2017. The top target is five-star wing Lonnie Walker, ranked No. 4 among shooting guards and No. 19 overall by ESPN. Arizona, Kentucky, Syracuse and Villanova are also on his list. If Walker doesn’t pan out, UM will take the best available player, or explore the transfer market. But they’re confident. “Last year it was kind of an upset that we got Dewan Huell and Bruce Brown,” Larranaga said. “Right now, we have momentum. … We feel we can recruit the McDonald’s All-America-type player, the one-and-done-type player.”

How full will the building be? Miami sold out season tickets for the second year in a row, a testament to how far Larranaga has taken a once-dormant program which counted precious few highlights until he arrived six years ago. His list of accomplishments is long. He has the best winning percentage (.674, 118-57) of any UM coach since the program’s infancy in the early 1930s. He has two of Miami’s three Sweet 16 appearances and its only ACC title. He has won his share against ACC powers Duke (4-2) and North Carolina (4-4), recruited the program’s first top-10 class, and twice won the ACC’s coach of the year award. But filling the building remains a nightly challenge, with a small student body and a home schedule that really doesn’t start cooking until the ACC teams come to town. His young team needs to learn how to play with passion, even if the barn isn’t jumping. If they can find their game during the non-conference slate, they could be a tough customer in ACC play. That might convince most of the people who snapped up those season tickets to use them.

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