AMELIA ISLAND — Jim Larranaga had just finished a coffee, but it wasn’t the caffeine that had him energized that particular morning. He gets this way when he’s talking about his basketball team, and he seemed especially excited about his backcourt.
“I think the personalities blend beautifully,” he said. “Very nice combination of guys.
“You have Ja’Quan [Newton] who’s really an attacker. You have Bruce [Brown] who’s combining attack with some perimeter play. You have D.J. [Vasiljevic], an outstanding 3-point shooter who’s working on his attack game.
“Then you add to it, guards like Chris Lykes, the Energizer bunny, up-tempo, high-energy, creative, and a guy like Lonnie Walker, who’s like Usain Bolt, a bolt of lightning, lightning in a bottle, lightning in a uniform. He can get on the court and ignite you at any time because he complements those other guys. It doesn’t matter who he’s playing with.
“The combination of their skills and talents blend so well together because their personalities blend so well together, on the court and off the court. “
He assessed the Hurricanes’ frontcourt in the same enthusiastic manner, sitting at a posh beachside resort with a Post reporter at the ACC Spring Meetings in Amelia Island last month. In the course of a 45-minute chat that moved from a sunny, increasingly hot patio to an air-conditioned lobby, he discussed his expectations for his 2017-18 Hurricanes, and how they might come together.
The big question: how good can they be? Larranaga said he has “no sense yet.”
Miami (21-12, 10-8 ACC) will be even younger than last year, when it had two seniors (wing Davon Reed and forward Kamari Murphy) and a junior (point guard Newton) and reached the first round of the NCAA Tournament. This year, Newton is the only senior, and UM’s pair of juniors (center Ebuka Izundu and wing Anthony Lawrence Jr.) are complimentary players.
The Hurricanes expect big jumps from sophomore guard Brown, whom Larranaga feels is good enough to make an NBA team’s rotation next year with continued development of his outside shot, and potential star forward Dewan Huell. Just like last year, however, he’s relying on freshmen to contribute early. If they can handle the pressure, especially on the defensive end, “like we hope and anticipate they will, then we can be very good,” Larranaga said. “Their development is going to be the key to our team’s success.”
Back to the frontcourt, and Huell. Larranaga is high on the 6-foot-11 Miami native, saying he has already exceeded expectations.
“I was really pleased with as a freshmen with his personality and leadership qualities,” Larranaga said. “When we recruited him, he was really quiet. He’s not that way. He’s vocal. He’s energetic. He’s very much a student, wants to get better. He’s highly motivated. It’s not that we didn’t see the physical part of that, but the intangible part is what’s been most pleasing to me as the head coach. We got even more than we bargained for with the person. But he’s still in the growing stages. We just don’t know how long it’s going to take before the offense clicks in. Some of that has to do with our personnel.”
Lest Miami become solely a perimeter-based offense, Miami’s guards need to be able to set up Huell (5.8 points, 3.1 rebounds, 17.4 minutes last year) and Izundu (4.2, 3.0, 13.0). To do that, they’ll need to rise from last in the ACC in assists and assist-to-turnover ratio. The Hurricanes’ goal is 16 assists per game, but they averaged 12. Against Florida State last Feb. 1, they had five. Against Penn in non-conference play, they had 21 turnovers. Some nights it was bad.
“Some nights it was awful,” Larranaga said.
A stat-cruncher, Larranaga sees UM averaging 10 more points per game if it produces four more assists per night – provided they come on a pair of 3s and a pair of 2s. “If we can reduce our turnovers and add to our assists,” he said, “our offense will be far more efficient, far more of a weapon than it was last season.”
He switched gears, like a point guard downshifting in traffic.
“Now,” he said, pausing for a moment. “The two guys who are leaving us? Our two best defenders. For the offense to [reach] its potential, the defense has to be at least at the same level, and I don’t know. That’s going to be our challenge. How do we get someone to be a lockdown defender like those guys were?”
Those guys were the 6-6 Reed and 6-8 Murphy, who could reasonably guard most ACC foes save for smallest, quickest guards and the biggest, most dominant centers. Is Larranaga more worried about perimeter defense or interior defense?
“Well, it always starts on the perimeter,” he said.
He was pleased with Newton (6-2), who guarded the point full-time for the first time in his high school or college career. He doesn’t force a lot of mistakes, but he doesn’t get beat often. Walker, a high-caliber athlete at 6-4, and Lykes (5-7) will be adjusting to ACC talent night-in, night-out. Vasiljevic (6-3) is more limited athletically, but intelligent and improving. If Brown (6-5) could just do an impression of Reed, well, then Miami may not miss a beat.
For someone as talented as Brown, that potential is there.
“Physically,” Larranaga said. “I’m not questioning the physical ability. It’s really about focus. If everybody’s talking to you about playing in the NBA, the first thought you have is, ‘I’ve got to score more.’ No. I can elevate my game by elevating my defense, which turns into wins, which turns into success for the whole team, including yourself.” For the success of this team, Larranaga said, “Bruce’s defense becomes huge.”
Lykes, who faced a few ACC-caliber players in his Washington, D.C. prep league, can become a nuisance in time. Walker played against fewer high-level players in Reading, Pennsylvania, and faces a steeper climb.
Up front, versatile Lawrence Jr. (6-7) will take over more of Murphy’s role. The Hurricanes get more offense in that deal – Lawrence can handle the ball, pass, shoot jumpers and take threes, and put the ball on the floor – but won’t defend like the more athletic Murphy. Huell and Izundu (6-10) have potential to be strong shot-blockers and rebounders.
This roster, which also includes sophomore center Rodney Miller (7-0), redshirt freshman forward Sam Waardenburg (6-9) and freshman forward Deng Gak (6-10) — as well as highly regarded Mount St. Mary’s transfer guard Miles Wilson (6-3), who will sit out this year — has a higher caliber of talent than perhaps any in Miami history. That’s if you go by recruiting rankings, which billed Brown, Huell and Walker as five-star players, and Newton, Lykes, Gak and Miller as four-stars.
“We have good talent,” Larranaga said. “But everything is relative. If we were talking about our Miami team in the NBA, you would be talking about the opposite: ‘They’re so young, you have kids that aren’t big enough.’
“It’s not a matter of me being excited because of how much talent I have. Rather, I’m excited because I think we have a lot of good kids who like practicing, and I love practice. When we start out and we’re doing drills, and I see the level of confidence, that’ll be exciting. When I see the inconsistency of that performance, because of our youth, because kids tend to be a little more up-and-down.
“You’ve got to remember, we have 11 [eligible] guys on scholarship, and eight of them are freshmen and sophomores. So what you have is a really young team. If we could keep them together until they were juniors and seniors, I would be excited about them being juniors and seniors. I’d say, ‘OK. Now we’re ready to win every single game.’”
He said that in the fall of 2012, when he watched Reggie Johnson, Kenny Kadji, Trey McKinney-Jones and Durand Scott practice with a second-year Shane Larkin. He thought he had the best team in the ACC, and a legitimate chance to win the national title. The story has been told a few times, how he went into the UM Board of Trustees meeting and implored them to show up and get the word out, because this could be the best Hurricanes team ever. He was right. They won the ACC regular-season and tournament titles and reached the Sweet 16.
“I wasn’t being cocky,” Larranaga said. “What people tend to do is when you’re enjoying success, as the success continues, they get on board and say ‘Wow, this team is really good.’ I was giving them a heads-up.”
They had a few bumps in the road. They lost to Saint Leo in an exhibition, and Florida Gulf Coast two games later. Larranaga attributed that to tinkering. He was mostly concerned with learning his lineup. Could they press? Who could play with whom? Could they defend ball-screens in a different way? He likened it to sculpture. He was carving and discarding pieces of clay that team didn’t need. Come ACC time, he recognized a winner. They won 13 ACC games in a row, beat North Carolina twice and trounced Duke by 27.
The sculptor’s clay did not crack under fire, not until that ill-fated Sweet 16 game against Marquette.
This year? Who knows.
“We had a lot of talent. We had upperclassmen. We knew a lot of things. That’s not the case right now,” Larranaga said. “We have physical talent. But we don’t know what our major strengths are going to be yet at the defensive end of the floor. How are we going to defend a low-post guy: are we going to play behind him? Are we going to front him? Are we going to trap him? If we trap, are we going to trap with a perimeter player? Are we going to trap with a big man? Those are all things that are discussed in staff meetings, that are reviewed in practice, and the players are like, ‘Why are we doing it differently today?’ Because I’m not sure yet. What’s the best way for this team? Some coaches do not do that. They say, ‘We do it this way, and we’re not doing it any other way.’ That eliminates the human factor. The guy you have doing it this year is not the same as the guy you had doing it last year.”
But that excites him, without fail, every year.