The Hurricanes dropped yet another hard-fought game to a talented conference foe this Saturday, falling 85-76 at the hands of No. 13 North Carolina.
Miami (9-8, 1-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) plummeted to the bottom of the ACC standings and the absence of junior forward Dewan Hernandez became as evident as ever.
With Hernandez sidelined because of questions surrounding his eligibility, the Hurricanes are limited to just seven healthy scholarship players.
“There are a lot of really great players in this league, and some Hall of Fame coaches coaching them,” UM coach Jim Larrañaga said after the North Carolina game. “So they’re not so easy to beat. Even if you have a terrific team, they probably have more guns than you do, more weapons, more size, more athletic ability and that was on display. Our guys played as well as we can, but eventually, it’s a battle of attrition.”
Miami might not have been expected to compete for a national championship a season after losing Bruce Brown, Jr. and Lonnie Walker IV to the NBA, but Larrañaga crafted a roster with enough talent to compete in the ACC.
With the Hurricanes returning Hernandez, guard Chris Lykes and veteran Anthony Lawrence II, while also adding Florida Gulf Coast transfer Zach Johnson, it was reasonable to assume Larrañaga could work his magic and claim a fourth straight NCAA Tournament berth.
Instead, Hernandez’s ongoing suspension has highlighted what was already the team’s biggest weakness: a lack of depth and size.
Senior Ebuka Izundu, who is 6-foot-10, 232-pounds, is the lone active center on the roster. Redshirt sophomore Sam Waardenburg is also listed at 6-foot-10, but Waardenburg is deployed as a floor-spacing stretch forward.
Having only one real center and small guards such as Lykes and Johnson has made rebounding extremely difficult for Miami.
The Hurricanes are a woeful 297 of 351 Division I teams in rebounding differential at -2.9. The margin has diminished even further in conference play. Miami has been out-rebounded by 10 rebounds per game, a rate which would rank dead last in college basketball over a full season.
To make matters worse, four of UM’s seven players average 30 or more minutes per game this season. Compare that to a team like Miami’s most recent opponent, UNC, which features ten players averaging at least ten minutes and zero players cracking the 30-minute plateau.
Even the most talented players in the world get worn down with a heavy workload.
The Hurricanes have led in the second half in all but one game this season, with Miami trailing by four points against Penn being the lone exception.
The fact that the Hernandez is healthy has incited many Miami backers, including the Miami native himself, to beg the NCAA on social media to ‘#FreeDewan’.
“I feel bad for him,” guard DJ Vasiljevic said. “I can tell how much pain he is going through because he wants to back out there with us. He comes in every day, even in the classroom, he comes with a positive attitude. He pushes us in practices. It just sucks, I wish he was out there too.”
Added Larrañaga: “He is so team oriented and cares so much about his teammates that he’s been on the bench at every home game, cheering like crazy. He’s been at every practice he’s been allowed to attend and working his tail off, hoping for the day when he gets the green light to play college basketball again.”
Miami is hopeful to receive an update this week regarding Hernandez’s eligibility, according to Hernandez’s lawyer Jason Setchen.
If Hernandez is deemed eligible, Miami’s lineup flexibility would receive a facelift. This would allow Larrañaga to feature two post presences on the floor, giving the Hurricanes’ scoring and rebounding a much-needed boost.
Unless a surprise ruling reinstates the former McDonald’s All-American, Miami will have little means to address these problems. The 2018-2019 season is in danger of being remembered as one full of moral victories, but short on real ones.
“We have to bring it every night,” Lawrence said. “Everybody has to bring it because we don’t have a lot. Everybody has to be ready to play, come in, and be ready to attack.”