FBI case, recruiting woes, personnel losses could put Miami Hurricanes in tough spot after March Madness

Jim Larranaga reacts in the second half against North Carolina at the ACC Tournament in Brooklyn, March 8, 2018. (Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

[March Madness: Canes to face a Cinderella darling]

A few hoops notes on a Monday night, as we prepare to head to Dallas for the NCAA Tournament:

* Relative to the barren years before Jim Larranaga, the Hurricanes are in a fruitful place.

But it’s fair to wonder if next year will be a bit dry.

Thursday’s first-round game against Loyola-Chicago in Dallas (approximately 3:10 p.m., truTV) will be Miami’s fourth NCAA Tournament appearance in the last six seasons. Consider this: In 49 seasons before Larranaga arrived from George Mason in 2011-12, Miami had six NCAA tournament appearances total. Recall that the team went dark for a 14-year period ending in 1985. Between that year and its ACC title-Sweet 16 combo in 2013, Canes basketball was all but forgotten outside of South Florida.

Larranaga is one of the more beloved coaches in this area’s sports history. He would be a strong candidate for a Mount Rushmore of UM coaches, along with baseball’s Ron Fraser, football’s Howard Schnellenberger, and a few others (that’s for another blog post).

However, he might have a doozy of an offseason ahead.

The personnel losses could be significant. Ja’Quan Newton graduates. Sophomore Bruce Brown and freshman Lonnie Walker are expected to test the NBA Draft waters (underclassmen can wade in and out, provided they don’t hire an agent). Miami adds 6-5 transfer guard Miles Wilson (11.8 points as a Mount St. Mary’s freshman last year), but will lose a point guard with lots of scoring talent and, potentially, a pair of future first-round draft picks.

After UM’s NCAA bid was announced, Walker told the Post he will decide his future after the season. He said he plans to lean on both Larranaga and his father.

“At the moment I haven’t really been thinking about the NBA,” Walker said. “That’s what kind of messes up a lot of players, when you think of other things besides playing. You can’t be five toes here, five toes out. Once the ball drops, it’s time for me to go and make a decision. Right now, I try not to think about it. It makes it so much easier to concentrate.”

In New York City last week, Brown made similar comments.

UM would be pleasantly surprised if either returns.

Two former five-stars exiting would be tolerable if UM continued its recruiting hot streak. But that fizzled when it was part of a Sept. 26 U.S. Department of Justice report. The document exposed dealings of shoe companies and street agents conspiring to funnel money to recruits — including Orlando-based wing Nassir Little, by men who said Miami had knowledge of the would-be transaction. UM has strongly denied any involvement, and both Little and his parents signed statements saying they accepted no money, had no knowledge of the situation and that UM did nothing wrong.

One official said the school feels victimized, since the FBI typically doesn’t clear schools found to be innocent in such matters. Waging a PR war against a government agency would be a messy proposition at best. UM has opted to let this pass.

It has hurt, no doubt. To date, Miami has zero recruits in its 2018 class, and could have up to four unused scholarships if Brown and Walker depart and no one is added.

The Hurricanes were involved with several of ESPN’s top 100 players before the news broke. All wound up signing elsewhere: 6-7 wing Little, 10th overall, went to North Carolina; 6-3 guard Jalen Carey (37th, Syracuse), 6-7 small forward Jules Bernard (46th, UCLA) and 6-3 guard Eric Ayala (91st, Maryland) also cut the Canes. UM was also in on 6-6 small forward Saddiq Bey, a four-star prospect and ESPN’s top-rated player in Washington, D.C. He wound up at N.C. State.

The FBI case wasn’t the only issue affecting Miami’s recruiting: Little’s early September official visit to Coral Gables was canceled when the school closed in advance of Hurricane Irma. Miami basketball, as one staffer sarcastically remarked, has had more enjoyable falls.

* By next fall, how will UM’s roster look?

It isn’t totally punting on the 2018 class, especially with a volatile FBI-NCAA situation simmering and the potential of new revelations. Division I recruits can sign from April 11 to May 16.  Barring a late prep addition, the Hurricanes would mine the transfer market, an area of past success for Larranaga. Don’t be surprised if Miami engages with transfers who hail from what has become its pipeline: the Northeast corridor, from Boston to New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia down to the Baltimore/D.C. area.

The wish list for next year’s team, assuming Brown and Walker depart: athletic wings and guards, another rebounder in the frontcourt and another point guard. We’ll delve deeper into next year’s roster after UM’s tournament run ends.

* Miami will always hunt for those rare hometown gems, and none for 2019 is more sparkling than Vernon Carey Jr., the 6-10, 260-pound son of the former UM and Miami Dolphins offensive lineman. Carey’s father has said the family is concerned about the FBI situation, but UM believes it is not out of it until Carey has signed. Duke, UNC and Michigan State are also in the mix, but consider this: all have been connected to the FBI case themselves.

Carey, ESPN’s No. 2 player in the 2019 class, is projected as a beast inside on both ends, with soft hands, shooting touch, bullish power and the ability to put the ball on the floor for a dribble or two. He is young for his class, according to ESPN, which believes he has lots of growing to do.

The Hurricanes are also making strides with 6-2 Philadelphia-area combo guard Isaiah Wong; 6-3 shooting guard Khalif Battle (brother of Syracuse standout Tyus; their stepmom, the former Tanya Woods, played hoops at UM); and 6-6 wing Khalil Whitney, from New Jersey.

They are not recruiting 7-1 center Balsa Koprivica, who is involved in the FBI case. Koprivica, from Serbia, played with Carey at Davie-University before transferring to an Orlando school.

* Carey’s current teammate, 6-6 wing Scottie Barnes, is on UM’s wish list for 2020. Recruiting analysts say Barnes (who transferred to U-School from Cardinal Newman) is a Scottie Pippen clone. He is ESPN’s No. 5 player in the 2020 class. Another local talent to monitor: 6-foot Gulliver Prep point guard Jamal Mashburn Jr., the son of the former Heat star.

* The Hurricanes (22-9) earned the No. 22 spot in the newest Associated Press top 25, released Monday. It is their highest position since Jan. 8, when they were 13-2 and ranked No. 18. UM, the preseason No. 13, climbed as high as No. 6, in December.

* Miami will depart to Dallas around 12:30 p.m. Tuesday. It practices Wednesday at AmericanAirlines Center. The Post will be there.

* According to Vivid Seats, the Miami-Loyola matchup was as of late Sunday the most affordable non-First Four session in the entire tournament.

“Tickets have lowest median listed price and the ‘get-in’ price is just $17,” Stephen Spiewak, a Vivid spokesman, wrote in an email.



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