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Season of challenges continues for UM, Larranaga

After winning the school's first ACC title and making a run to the Sweet 16 last March, it's been a rough up and down season for coach Jim Larranaga and the Miami Hurricanes men's basketball team.

With six ACC games left on the regular season slate, the Hurricanes (12-13, 3-9 ACC) have yet to win an ACC game at home and now will be without one of their key rotation players at forward in junior James Kelly, who was suspended "indefinitely" for a violation of team rules according to UM. A source close to the team told The Miami Herald the suspension was expected to last three games.

Still, as tough as it has been to replace the entire starting lineup and have four key backcourt players sit out the season because of injury (freshman guards Deandre Burnett, Corn Elder) or transfer rules (Angel Rodriguez, Sheldon McClellan), the Hurricanes have only been run off the court once in ACC action, a 67-46 loss to Duke back on Jan. 22. 

Larranaga, a man who has coached man-to-man press defense for the bulk of his career, switched to a zone this year and slowed the game down (UM ranks last in Division I basketball in offensive possessions) so his team could remain in games despite the lack of offensive firepower. It's pretty much worked as UM has been in many games late including against No. 1-ranked and unbeaten Syracuse twice.

"These first three years – next year included – it’s the most variety of challenges that I’ve ever had," Larranaga said Monday during his weekly press conference with reporters. "It comes in so many different fashions. The first year it was with injuries to Reggie Johnson, to Julian Gamble, the NCAA investigation, the suspensions of Reggie and Durand [Scott] during the season. We had all of that going on. The next year we had almost everything in place all season long except a thumb injury to Reggie. While that was going on we also had to deal with recruiting during the investigation. That created a whole series of challenges for this staff.

"Now this year, with a whole new starting lineup, new guys trying to learn their position, very, very, very challenging. Now, next year chances are we’ll have a whole new starting lineup again because we’re ending the season with starting five seniors. Having to make so many changes offensively and defensively, it's been difficult."

Playing at such a slow tempo (UM is averaging 60.1 possessions a game, 351st out of 351 teams according to statsheet.com) isn't the way Larranaga or his players wanted to play. 

"Once we got into games it became very, very clear we could not be an up-tempo team," Larranaga said. "We had lost one of our guards so our perimeter game was really hurt by the loss of Deandre Burnett. We had originally five guys that could rotate in and out -- three starters and two subs. Now, it’s a whole lot different. As the season has progressed I’ve had to move Erik Swoope back there. His natural position is more of a four man, an undersized four, just so we have an additional body we can play at the three."

Players like freshman wing Davon Reed, who has had to play point guard at times because of injuries, would be having a much more explosive season if UM had someone to penetrate and dish him the ball, Larranaga said. But the Canes simply don't have the personnel to play otherwise, and the players believe in the slow-paced system Larranaga has in place because they've been in so many close games.

"We don’t want to get into a run and shoot contest with the teams in our league right now," Larranaga said. "We don’t have the firepower to do that.”

Is there a temptation to cut players loose and let them play in the fast-paced offense they prefer?

"I remember doing that with one of our teams at George Mason," Larranaga said. "They were very much a half court team. They said coach we want to press and run. I said fine, we’ll do that the next game. We lost to Northeastern by 25. Then we had to play them in the tournament the very next game and we beat them playing smart.

"Every kid thinks he’s the best fast break player in America and he’s best when he’s in the open court. But what you don’t understand as a player is you might be pretty good at that, but look at the opponent and tell me 'Is our team better than their team in that?' It’s not about one individual. It’s, ‘Are we going to be able to keep up with the pace an up tempo game creates.’

"Now last year I wanted the game to be as many possessions as possible, for it to be as fast possible. We played Duke and Carolina – two of the fastest teams in the league – and we scored 90. The reason is we had a lot of offensive talent... I don’t care how much space we give Tonye [Jekiri] and [Rafael Raphael Akpejiori], they’re not scorers. And our guards have limited experience."

> Larranaga said players like Jekiri, who had a season-high 15 points at FSU but went scoreless at Virginia Tech, can't really spend time during the season trying to create new ways to score because it will throw their games off.

"You really get better during the offseason," Larranaga said. "You have to work so hard between April and September and then that package of new skills you’ve developed – that growth can continue through the season.

"During the year, when you’re trying to improve its really the things you’re already good at. Because if you start messing with the things you’re not really good at to improve them, guys will start doing them in games. And they’re not very good at it.

"Shane Larkin was one of those guys. As a freshman he didn’t have those high arching layups where he could score over big guys. In the off-season we worked on it and he became a terrific high speed layup maker who could score over big guys. But you don’t start working on those during the season. You just aren’t there yet, haven’t had enough quantity. Tonye needs to spend a lot of time on his scoring ability."

> Even though he's at UM on football scholarship, don't underestimate the loss of freshman guard Corn Elder to the basketball team.

"Huge loss because Corn Elder was someone who could play man-to-man defense and guard the dribbler very, very well and handle the ball," Larranaga said. "Then we could have two natural point guards – Manu and Corn Elder sharing the point guard position and leave everybody else at their natural spots."

> New NBA commissioner Adam Silver looks like he's going to make a strong push to raise the age minimum for players to enter the NBA to 20. Larranaga is definitely a fan of that. He also would like to see the number of scholarships in men's basketball (reduced from 15 to 13 back in 1994) return to 15.

"It’s one of the things that has been a problem in men’s college basketball when scholarships were cut from 15 to 13 and in addition to that when the NBA started taking players at a much younger age," Larranaga said. "Teams from the ACC have far more adjusting to do year after year after year than mid majors do. That’s why you see so many mid-majors doing well in the NCAA tournament. Their continuity is much better. 

"The one thing about the NBA is they’re taking kids so early. You look at the No. 1 pick, Anthony Bennett, he’s in the D-League. The number of first round draft choices going to the D-League. From an ACC, high-major standpoint, the rules are now drastically impacting the level of performance. So many players going early so you’re replacing them with rookies – whether it’s a junior college kid or transfer, he’s still a first year player in your program. I’d like to see that corrected."

> Why does Larranaga think the Canes are struggling so much at home?

"Our lack of success at home can really be attributed to our lack of consistency throughout the year," he said. "We just don’t play the same way on a regular basis -– the individual player. A lot of that is guys playing out of position. We don’t have a clear 1-2-3-4-5 man. Garrius [Adams] has been playing the point the last three games exclusively. If you were to tell me before the season what’s his best position I would tell you the three [small forward]. He’s our third best ball handler. Our big guys are limited in their scoring ability. Tonye and Raf don’t score a lot at the five. So that’s puts pressure on the other guys to deliver and that allows the opponent to focus on the guys who shoot. And we’ve played very good teams here at home. Syracuse, Duke, N.C. State. We’d like to play a whole lot better Wednesday night.”

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