Miami announced Tuesday that one of its best all-around players, sophomore guard Bruce Brown, could miss six weeks because of a left foot injury.
Brown will have surgery Thursday, coach Jim Larranaga said.
It leaves Miami without its most versatile player, top rebounder (7.1 per game), distributor (4.0 assists) and second-leading scorer (11.4) for the rest of the regular season. Brown, arguably the team’s best defender, also leads UM in steals (1.3) and averages a team-high 33.7 minutes per game.
“My life changes dramatically without Bruce Brown,” said Larranaga, who called him “the face of the program.”
He’s still figuring out how to replace him, but he knows it won’t be one player.
“It’s not like you’ve got a flat tire and you replace it with another tire. It doesn’t really work that way,” Larranaga said. “Guys can’t change who they are and take on his responsibility. What really does work: no matter who you are, play really well. Whatever you’re really good at, do that.”
If Brown’s recovery goes according to schedule, is likely to keep him out until NCAA Tournament time. First-round games begin approximately six weeks from Tuesday. Unless Brown returns early, the Hurricanes would play in the ACC Tournament (March 6-10) in Brooklyn without him.
Brown, one of top freshmen in the nation last year, considered turning pro but returned for his sophomore year. He was a preseason All-American (according to NBC Sports) and widely projected as a first-round pick in the upcoming NBA draft.
However, his shooting percentages have dipped in his second campaign. He is making 41.5 percent of his shots from the floor, 26.7 of his 3-pointers, and 62.9 percent of his free throws. He hit 45.9 percent, 34.7 percent and 74.4 percent as a freshman. He has scored in double figures in four of his eight ACC games. As a freshman, he hit that mark in 10 of 17.
One possible culprit: he fought through a hand injury last month.
Larranaga declined to specify how Brown’s foot injury occurred. He deferred to Brown, who was not made available to speak to reporters Tuesday. Larranaga said Brown had complained of pain in UM’s most recent game.
“I think he’s been a great leader, a great competitor,” Larranaga said when asked to review Brown’s season to this point. “I think he’s shown the ability to be an explosive college player. I also think he’s probably put too much pressure on himself, and had some games that were not like Bruce Brown games. I felt he was reaching a point where he was getting ready to explode and have series of games where he was the best player on the floor, for both teams.”
His absence means Miami (15-5, 4-4 ACC) will rely more on Lonnie Walker IV, its heralded freshman who has come on strong of late.
Walker, who is the same height and weight as Brown (6-5 and 205, give or take an inch and a pound), is averaging 19 points per game in his last five. In that stretch, he is shooting 45.2 percent from the floor, 45.7 from 3-point land and — of great importance for a player who will has the ball in his hands at the end of games — is making 81.3 percent of his free throws.
It remains to be seen how Walker will fare with more attention on him, since UM’s final 10 ACC opponents — the next being Pittsburgh (8-14, 0-9), which visits the Watsco Center at 7 p.m. Wednesday (ACC regional affiliates, WatchESPN.com) — will no longer have to account for Brown’s rugged rebounding, skilled ballhandling and acrobatic finishes at the rim.
Miami will also miss Brown’s active, physical defense on the perimeter. Walker is an athlete of the same caliber and could conceivably fill that role, but UM would love to be able to use both, not just the less-experienced of the pair. Both are in Miami’s starting and finishing lineups.
Walker (24.4 minutes) could to play in the 30-plus range, while senior Ja’Quan Newton, who has hit double figures twice in eight ACC games, may take on more scoring responsibility. Reserve guard DJ Vasiljevic (23.3), who shook a seven-game slump with 20 points in an overtime loss at Florida State last Saturday, is likely to see more action, as is electric backup point guard Chris Lykes (18.1 minutes, 7.7 points and 2.0 assists per).
Larranaga said junior Anthony Lawrence Jr. could move from the 4-spot to the 3, with Walker playing less at the 3 and more at Brown’s 2-guard role.
Brown’s injury also opens up minutes for stretch four Sam Waardenburg, should be continue to prove worthy. The redshirt freshman from New Zealand totaled 60 minutes in UM’s first 18 contests, but played 25 in the last two. He grabbed a career-high seven rebounds in a win over Louisville last Wednesday and chipped in five points in last Saturday’s overtime loss at Florida State.
Despite his shooting struggles, Brown is a major loss from an energy, defensive and rebounding standpoint. Miami has struggled with rebounding and allowing second-chance points, and that may suffer more in Brown’s absence (increasing Lykes’ minutes, for example, may offset the scoring and assists, but won’t help on the boards). Defensively, Brown is Miami’s bulldog, a major reason the team ranks 16th nationally in KenPom.com’s efficiency metric. He’s the only one on the team considered anything close to “lockdown.”
What will he bring to the table when he returns? Everything, Miami hopes, just as before.