Commentary: After disappointing season, Hurricanes should prioritize keeping and developing players

Sophomore Isaiah Wong takes a shot from near the free throw line in Miami's win over Duke on Monday Feb. 1 at the Watsco Center. Wong averaged 17.1 points per game and was named all ACC third team.
Sophomore Isaiah Wong takes a shot from near the free throw line in Miami's win over Duke on Monday, Feb. 1 at the Watsco Center. Wong averaged 17.1 points per game and was named all-ACC third team. Photo credit: Josh Halper

The Miami Hurricanes men’s basketball team entered the 2020-2021 season filled with optimism and determination. After the previous season’s 15-16 record and yet another year without dancing in March, head coach Jim Larrañaga and his staff had good reason to enter this season with high hopes.

The Canes were bringing back key players such as point guards Chris Lykes and Isaiah Wong, and forwards Kameron McGusty and Anthony Walker, among others. Additionally, an infusion of talent was heading to Coral Gables via another top 25 recruiting class, consisting of four star prospects Earl Timberlake and Matt Cross.

Miami was projected to finish seventh in the ACC in the preseason media poll and were predicted to enter the NCAA tournament as a #8 seed, according to ESPN’s bracketologist Joe Lunardi. However, as has been the case in the last several years for Miami, preseason expectations did not mirror reality as a flurry of injuries sunk the Hurricanes into the cellar of the ACC.

Lykes, who was selected to the preseason All-ACC second team, went down with an ankle injury in an early season game on December 4th and was unavailable for the rest of the season. Big man Rodney Miller was ruled out for the season on December 27th due to knee surgery. Sam Waardenburg suffered a foot injury in pre-season practice and never set foot on the court.

It was a lost season for players such as Earl Timberlake and Harlond Beverly. Timberlake was effective on the court, but he only played in seven games due to various injuries. For Beverly, he struggled before going down with an injury that kept him out of the final weeks of ACC play, averaging just 6.7 points per game on a 34.5 field goal shooting percentage.

Timberlake and Cross are both now not with the team. Cross left the program abruptly in the middle of the season and announced he was transferring to Louisville, while Timberlake announced on March 14 he will be entering his name into the transfer portal and taking his talents elsewhere.

Senior Elijah Olaniyi attempts to make a layup over a Florida State defender in Miami's loss on Wednesday Feb. 24 at the Watsco Center. Miami finished the season with a 10-17 record while only winning four of their 19 conference games.
Senior Elijah Olaniyi attempts to make a layup over a Florida State defender in Miami's loss on Wednesday, Feb. 24 at the Watsco Center. Miami finished the season with a 10-17 record while only winning four of its 19 conference games. Photo credit: Josh Halper

As a result of rampant injuries, the Hurricanes were forced to play with just six or seven scholarship players for the majority of the season. As is to be expected with so many key players watching from the sidelines, Miami struggled in the gauntlet that is the ACC.

The start of the season was promising for Larrañaga’s crew, which included a statement win at home against Big Ten powerhouse Purdue, a #4 seed in this year’s NCAA tournament. However, the win was followed up by a loss against lowly Florida Gulf Coast, a performance indicative of the rest of the season.

The Hurricanes ended the season with a 4-15 record in the ACC, the third worst mark in the conference only ahead of Wake Forest and Boston College. Miami secured its ACC wins at home against Louisville, Duke, and Boston College and won on the road at NC State.

The Canes suffered a number of heartbreaking losses along the way, losing by two to Virginia Tech and North Carolina and by one to Clemson, all in three consecutive games. They lost to the Hokies again in overtime later in the season, with a buzzer-beating three by VT sending it to overtime.

The highlight of this team was undoubtedly its run in the ACC tournament, becoming the first #13 seed to ever reach the quarterfinals of the conference tournament. After defeating Pittsburgh 79-73 in the first round, the Canes shocked the Clemson Tigers 67-64 in a game they entered as nine-point underdogs. Their Cinderella run ended with a loss to the eventual tournament champion Georgia Tech, 70-66, in the third round.

Miami was carried throughout the season by Wong, who was named third-team All-ACC. Wong was consistently excellent all year, averaging 17 points per game and 4.8 rebounds per game on 43 percent field goal shooting and 35 percent shooting from behind the arc. The sophomore was the catalyst all year for Miami, and will be among the best players in the ACC if he returns.

Redshirt senior Nysier Brooks attempts to block a Florida State shot in Miami's loss on Wednesday Jan. 27 at the Watsco Center. Brooks led the team with 26 blocks on the season.
Redshirt senior Nysier Brooks attempts to block a Florida State shot in Miami's loss on Wednesday Jan. 27 at the Watsco Center. Brooks led the team with 26 blocks on the season. Photo credit: Josh Halper

Canes fans also should have been delighted by the contributions of their two recent transfers, Elijah Olaniyi and Nysier Brooks. Olaniyi averaged 10 points per game while playing consistent defense all year, while Brooks averaged seven points and six rebounds per game while proving to be an intimidating presence down low. Although both are seniors, they do have the opportunity to return to Coral Gables due to the NCAA’s rule granting all players an extra year of eligibility because of Covid-19.

Other starters, Walker and McGusty, both came on strong at the end of the season, with Walker having arguably his best game of the season in their win over Clemson in the ACC tournament. With freakish athleticism and natural instincts, look for Walker to continue to improve his shooting stroke and develop into an upper-tier two-way player in the ACC. McGusty was once again rock-solid, averaging 13 points per game on an efficient 45 percent clip from the field. The former Oklahoma transfer carried his team in the matchup against Georgia Tech, scoring an electric 25 points.

Australian native Deng Gak was finally healthy enough to stick in the rotation, and came off the bench and brought consistent hustle on both ends, along with several highlight-reel drunks. Walk-on Willie Herenton was forced into action a lot in the last few weeks of the season with the Canes deploying just six scholarship players. The senior guard was able to hit key shots in the ACC tournament and hold his own on the defensive ends against the elite point guards in the ACC.

Overall, it was a disappointing season for the Hurricanes. Another year in the bottom half of the ACC and despite the late season push, they were never a realistic candidate for the NCAA tournament. Turning the page to 2021, the Hurricanes should prioritize returning this year’s key seniors and continuing to develop sophomore studs Wong and Walker. Above all, if the Hurricanes can stay healthy and properly infuse another solid recruiting class, the 2021-2022 season might be the campaign that turns around Miami’s fortunes.