Miami men’s basketball season turned shaky after strong start

Just like any great roller coaster, the 2014-15 Miami men’s basketball season started with a lengthy, steady climb. The first drop was sudden, and from there, the rest of the season had more twists and turns than a David Fincher thriller.

The Hurricanes entered the campaign as the ACC’s largest question mark. While few doubted the talent assembled by Coach Jim Larrañaga, the team featured eight newcomers and the program was fresh off a disappointing rebuilding year the previous season.

Miami loudly announced its return to relevance on Nov. 17, knocking off then-No. 8 Florida 69-67 in Gainesville. Redshirt junior Angel Rodriguez punctuated a second half rally from 15 points down, hitting an off-balance three with 16 seconds remaining to sink the Gators.

Miami’s ascent continued through early December as the Canes won the Charleston Classic in dominant fashion, defeating Drexel, Akron and Charlotte by an average of 22 points. The team’s early run culminated with a 70-61 victory over undefeated Illinois in the ACC–Big Ten Challenge in front of a rowdy crowd at the BankUnited Center (BUC) to push Miami’s record to 8-0.

The Canes rose as high as 15th in the AP Poll. Fans dreamed of contending for an ACC Championship. Unfortunately, lackadaisical effort bordering on indifference when the lights weren’t brightest kept Miami not just from contending for an ACC title, but also from making the NCAA Tournament.

The first head-scratching loss came on Dec. 6 at the BUC against Green Bay, 68-55. Less than two weeks later, an Eastern Kentucky outfit playing its first game following a loss at the hands of the East Tennessee State Buccaneers throttled Miami by 28 points.

Larrañaga fumed to the press about having to stop practice because of lethargic effort. Some players voiced similar concerns. The team certainly had its moments as the season progressed, but it was never quite able to figure out how to keep the throttle down all the time.

Still, Miami finished the conference schedule with a very respectable 10-8 record. The troubling letdowns persisted, with damaging losses to Georgia Tech, Florida State and Wake Forest, but conference play brought some sensational highlights as well.

On Jan. 13, Miami travelled to eventual National Champion Duke and dropped 56 points on the Blue Devils in the second half en route to an astonishing 90-74 victory. One week later, the ‘Canes pulled out a heart-stopping 66-62 victory over Syracuse at the famed Carrier Dome, with sophomore Manu Lecomte sticking a dagger of a three-pointer to seal the win.

But despite those successes, Miami needed one more signature win to make the tournament and couldn’t find it, with near misses in double overtime against Virginia, a tight home defeat at the hands of North Carolina, twice against Louisville and twice against Notre Dame, with one of those games coming in the ACC Tournament when Miami rallied from 20 points down only to fall short.

Miami saw its name not on the NCAA Tournament Selection Show, but the NIT knock-off one.

For many teams, that would be the end of the story. For example, how about the Illinois team that Miami beat in the December battle of undefeated squads? An uneven conference season dropped them into the NIT as well, where they were promptly steamrolled by Alabama and looked like they couldn’t care less.

Miami came together and launched an NIT run to remember. The Hurricanes opened play with a 75-71 win over North Carolina Central and reached the quarterfinals five days later with a 73-66 win over Alabama, highlighted by a three-pointer from redshirt junior Tonye Jekiri. It was the first and only three-point attempt of his career.

After dispatching the Crimson Tide, Miami faced a raucous road test against Richmond and trailed by as many as 18 in the second half before a furious rally that propelled the ‘Canes to a 63-61 victory and a trip to Madison Square Garden in New York City for the NIT Final Four.

After knocking off Temple in the semifinals, Miami fell just short in the championship against Stanford, losing 66-64 in overtime when a dubious foul call allowed Cardinal star Chasson Randle to sink the winning free throws.

However, Miami had a season to remember. Junior transfer Sheldon McClellan dominated the ACC, scoring 14.8 points per game and shooting a blistering 48.4 percent from the floor, an astonishing figure for a guard. Redshirt junior Tonye Jekiri came into his own, leading the ACC in rebounds with 10.2 per game. Sophomore Davon Reed was a steadying force, particularly during the NIT run.

Next year, Miami returns – as of now at least – all but three players from this year’s squad, with graduate transfer Joe Thomas having no eligibility remaining and Lecomte and redshirt freshman DeAndre Burnett transferring to find more playing time elsewhere.

With so much talent and experience returning next year, it would not be a surprise for Miami to make a lot of noise in a whole other tournament next March.


Featured image courtesy HurricaneSports