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ACC Preview #8 - Miami

Jim Larranaga has put together a talented team that’s going to make some noise.

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NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Michigan State vs Miami
Mar 17, 2017; Tulsa, OK, USA; Miami Hurricanes forward Anthony Lawrence Jr. (3) works around Michigan State Spartans guard Miles Bridges (22) during the second half in the first round of the 2017 NCAA Tournament at BOK Center. 
Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

After last season, people revised their opinion of ACC football and found it was actually pretty good.

Less noted but just as interesting, the southern tier of ACC basketball has improved a great deal.

Clemson is firmly competitive with just about everyone, Georgia Tech was a major surprise last season and the two Florida schools have become significant factors in ACC play.

Leonard Hamilton has been at Florida State since 2002 and has built a program which is usually deep and focused on defense.

And at Miami, Jim Larranaga has done something really remarkable.

Miami, remember, canceled the basketball program from 1971 to 1985, when former Virginia Tech and Clemson coach Bill Foster rebuilt the program. Since the ‘Canes started competing again, Miami hired Foster, Hamilton, Perry Clarke and Frank Haith prior to hiring Larranaga.

The program (as an independent and then in the Big East and the ACC) had hovered around .500 but rarely done well.

Larranaga has outperformed all his predecessors by far since Miami rebooted basketball, winning nearly 67% of his games and interestingly, has boosted his winning percentage at every stop.

More than that, Miami now can go toe to toe with anyone in the ACC. The year before last Miami beat Duke, Notre Dame, FSU, Virginia and Louisville before losing to eventual national champs Villanova in the Sweet Sixteen.

Last season the ‘Canes beat UNC, Virginia and Duke, finishing 21-12 and 10-8 in the ACC, good for eighth place.

The days of taking Miami for granted are long gone. This year will be no exception.

Miami’s going to have a tremendous backcourt.

Senior Ja’Quan Newton is back, as is sophomore Bruce Brown.

Newton, 6-2, averaged 13.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg and 2.4 apg. He’s a solid ball handler and a tough kid. He’s not hugely athletic but he’s plenty good enough for college ball.

Newton was suspended for three games last year for the standard “breaking team rules” and vowed afterwards to never let it happen again.

Not that it bothered his team much.

Miami, despite limited depth, won all three games and then upset Duke when he came back.

Part of the reason for that was the outstanding play of Brown.

Brown, a 6-5 sophomore, had a really good freshman year and anyone who doesn't see his potential is just missing out.

He averaged 11.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 3.2 apg, and 1.5 spg.

For part of last season, Larranaga said that Brown had been “running on a half-tank” and had suffered from tonsillitis during at least part of that four-game streak.

Brown is just a player. He’s a solid defender and rebounder and as his career advances, he’ll take on more offensive responsibility.

After his freshman year, half-tank or not, a lot of people thought he would be a first-round pick.

He decided to skip the NBA for now and returned to Miami for at least one more year. And if he has a full tank, look out world.

Miami also brings in freshman Lonnie Walker. He tore his right meniscus in mid-July but is expected back for the start of the season.

When he’s back to full speed, we’ll see a highly athletic guard who Miami will use extensively on the break.

He’s also expected to be a one-and-done although his dad, Lonnie III (Miami’s Lonnie is Lonnie IV) would like him to enjoy college and not feel rushed.

Miami could have the best backcourt in the ACC and possibly the nation. The bench isn’t too bad either.

Aussie Dejan Vasiljevic, a 6-3 sophomore, showed some great flashes last season. We caught a bit of him this summer in international play and were impressed again. He’s a solid player.

Freshman Chris Lykes is just 5-7, but the product of DC’s Gonzaga High is, well, highly respected. He’s small but highly athletic: the Post compares him not to Chris Paul but rather Russell Westbrook. He’s going to be fun to watch.

Up front, Miami has more questions but still considerable potential.

Dewan Huell is a 6-11, 220 lb. sophomore. He averaged 17.4 mpg as a freshman and put up 5.8 ppg and 3.1 rpg.

He talked openly last season about being a one-and-done player but wasn't nearly ready for that. A reasonably goal for him this season would be to double his shooting and rebounding stats and being a more effective shot blocker. There are a ton of basketball things to focus on like setting effective screens, making smart passes, boxing out more effectively - but Larranaga would probably be happy with gradual across the board improvements.

Ebuka Izundu got 13 mpg last season and averaged 4.2 ppg and 3.0 rpg.

The Charlotte native is big and started nine games last season. He may never be a star player but if he’s steady and competent, he’ll help.

Miami also has sophomore Rodney Miller. He’s another big kid - 7-0 and nearly 260. He’s a guy we’d expect to contribute later rather than sooner.

Miami lists sophomore Anthony Lawrence Jr. as a guard but the 6-7 wing is likely to see more time at forward where Miami is a bit weak.

Larranaga also beat out Duke and others for freshman Deng Gak. He’s 6-10 and 195 so he’ll have to fill out but he has real potential. Like former Blue Devil Luol Deng, to whom he is close, Gak is a Dinka who was forced to leave Sudan due to the civil war. Like many other Dinkas, he went first to Egypt and later to Australia, where he became a teammate of Vasiljevic.

He’s long and fluid and as soon as he puts on weight he could be a factor. You’ll want to keep an eye on him.

Miami also has another guy from Down Under, 6-9 Sam Waardenburg, who enters school as a sophomore. He’s a bit of an unknown so we’ll have to wait and see.

He’s actually from New Zealand, not Australia, but about 14 of Larranaga’s roster is from Australasia now. We always figured Miami would rack up talent in the Caribbean and Venezuela. Instead, they’re muscling in on St. Mary’s.

This is a really intriguing team. The backcourt could be electric and only one big guy really has to come through. Miami could even go small with a four-guard lineup and do really well.

The ACC focus will probably be on Duke, UNC and Louisville, with Virginia not far behind, but Miami is going to be good and will likely improve as the season goes on, particularly as Walker gets up to full speed.

Some people are picking the ‘Canes as a dark horse for ACC champs. We aren’t ready to go that far, but generally speaking, when you give Jim Larranaga significant talent, he knows what to do with it.

He has that with this team, so look out.

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