Veteran forward Sam Waardenburg knew it was a good sign when his teammates felt optimism as November turned into December.
Miami left the ESPN Events Invitational in Orlando, Florida, on Nov. 28 with a come-from-behind win over North Texas squeezed in between two double-digit losses to Dayton and No. 10 Alabama — two contests not deemed blowouts prior to halftime.
Nearly two weeks later, such lack of momentum now lies in the rearview mirror. The Hurricanes (7-3) are riding a three-game win streak in December, a month no different than that of prior seasons under head coach Jim Larrañaga. UM stands at 47-15 all-time in December under Larrañaga, representing the most promising time of year over 11 years.
“Coming off the tournament up in Orlando … no one was head-down or anything like that,” said Waardenburg, a sixth-year redshirt senior who has already set two new career-highs in made 3-point field goals while starting each of the team’s first 10 games. “Guys were hungry to get back out there and actually show what we can really do. It was great to go up to Penn State in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and get that win on the road and guys were excited after that. From that, we really knew what we could do as a team.”
Over the Thanksgiving weekend, Miami turned the basketball over for a combined 47 times in its three games of the neutral site tournament. While they have forced 141 turnovers, the Hurricanes have poured collective attention into something not printed on paper each contest.
“It’s just how hard we have to play. We kind of figured that out when we went to Orlando and got beat up on a little bit,” said sixth-year redshirt senior Kameron McGusty, who ranks sixth in the Atlantic Coast Conference in points per game, three places ahead of third-year sophomore guard Isaiah Wong. “It kind of, you know, put a switch in our head like, ‘We have to play harder. We have to do more; we’ve got to have more energy. We’ve got to outwork teams.’”
McGusty and Wong, a pair of veteran backcourt scorers who each tested NBA draft waters this summer, once again lead Miami in the scoring column, each averaging no fewer than 15 points each night. The program itself has logged an average of 71.4 points per game, placing fourth in the ACC behind North Carolina.
And yet, Larrañaga has underscored a particular pattern of greater appearance as UM has rekindled its dominance on the hardwood.
“I think this is a group that’s very well connected. I think on the court, they really trust each other … But I think also it’s the way we’re playing,” Larrañaga said. “Sam Waardenburg, Jordan Miller [are] handling the ball a lot. Our bigs are not getting left out of the offense. Early in the season, they were. They weren’t getting to handle the ball enough to really make an impact … We’re getting better and we’re going to have to get better because we’re not very big.”
Miami holds the third fewest assists in the conference, though is keen on reaching the foul line having shot nearly 15 free throws per game. Only 5-4 Syracuse stands ahead of the Hurricanes when it comes to foul shooting proficiency, sinking 76.5% of its foul shot attempts.
Rebounding, a relative sore spot for UM in recent seasons, has at times plagued the Hurricanes through the season’s first 4 ½ weeks.
“We know we’re not going to be the most talented night,” McGusty said. “I mean, some nights we may be, but the nights that we aren’t, we’re going to have to outwork people, play harder than them and outrebound them. So, we take pride in that and that’s kind of our identity, and that’s what we realize we have to do in order to win.”
All numbers aside, a nine-point comeback against Clemson to open conference matchups and a 17-point win against Lipscomb Wednesday has brightened a locker room with aspirations of earning a place in the Associated Press Top 25 poll sooner rather than later. Miami hasn’t garnered a national ranking in the regular season since March 5, 2018.
“As a team, it’s just a lot of joy and happiness in the locker room,” McGusty said. “We always are happy for each other. Everybody’s cheering each other on, looking forward to everybody being successful. We have just good energy out there. I feel like we’re just building off what we did in the tournament last year, in the ACC Tournament.”
Two contests lie on the Hurricanes’ calendar up until Dec. 28, with non-conference opponents Fordham and Stetson awaiting a team that breaks into the bulk of ACC competition on Dec. 29 versus NC State. Miami is inside the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, against Fordham on Sunday, as tip-off is scheduled for 11:30 a.m.
“We’ve got to keep building, got to keep building and keep getting better. I think we play in spurts where we’re a great, amazing defensive team and then sometimes, the other team goes on runs,” fourth-year junior guard Jordan Miller said. “So, we really just have to double down and keep trying to keep better every day, whether it’s 1%, 2%, whatever it is.”