It's been busy. I don't have a full-fledged preview of Florida's game against Miami (7 p.m., ESPNU / WatchESPN) for you. But I do have this insight from The State of The U.
Miami's coming off a season in which its record and performance, while not impressive on an objective level, were really good relative to talent and experience. How did the 'Canes do it in 2013-14?
Andy, first of all it is excellent to see someone outside of Coral Gables who recognizes what an accomplishment last season really was. What Coach L and staff did was turn this team into an excellent match-up zone squad (even Jim Boeheim marveled at how well they were playing it), and then also slowed the pace offensively to a halt to keep them in nearly every contest. Most games they took good care of the ball, and despite being an awful shooting team, they found ways to score.
They got a career year out of Rion Brown (averaged nearly two and half his career best at 15 ppg) and young players like freshmen PG Manu Lecomte and wing Davon Reed learned on the fly and made solid contributions. By the end of the season, even Colts hopeful TE Erik Swoope (who should have been playing football his whole career at UM) was even playing big.
In all of my 20-plus years following 'Canes hoops, I do not recall any in the program getting more from less. It was truly a credit to the coaching staff that they even sniffed .500, not to mention knocked off UNC and Arizona State, among others, and even took Syracuse to the limit twice.
The obvious storyline for Miami in 2013-14 is the infusion of transfers, especially Sheldon McClellan and Angel Rodriguez. How do you see them fitting in, and what will their roles be?
Angel is going to be the starting PG and the team's vocal leader. I spoke with UM graduates and members of last season's team, Donnavan Kirk and Justin Heller, just after the season ended, and they were saying that Rodriguez was already taking on a leadership role this past season while sitting out. Kirk and Heller also raved about the physical abilities of McClellan, noting a 44-inch vertical leap, and basically saying he might be the most likely to move on to the NBA from the current roster. McClellan is a candidate to be the team's leading scorer if his shot selection improves over what it was in Austin.
Another guy who will be a huge part of the storyline is RS frosh Deandre Burnett. The coaching staff told us before the season last year, that they expected him to be the team's best scorer. But he broke his wrist just days before the start of the season. Burnett is a 6'2 combo guard who once averaged 35 ppg in H.S. He also has great bloodlines (older brother of former UF, former UM recruit/current FSU RB Dalvin Cook).
Jim Larrañaga is one of the better coaches in college basketball who doesn't get mentioned among the best coaches in college basketball. What has he done differently since taking over from Frank Haith, and what has he done better? (Has he done anything worse?)
I am going to resist the temptation to bash Haith too much. Let me just say this: Whereas Haith took players and tried to make them fit into his system, Coach L takes what he has and molds his system around it. When it was obvious how good Shane Larkin was two years ago, UM ran more high screen and roll than you could imagine. Last season, when they had an obvious dearth of talent, and could not guard individually on the perimeter, they went match-up zone.
Players seem to be developing more rapidly under Larrañaga as well. Manu Lecomte is a good example. At the beginning of the season last year, he was such a liability defensively that Miami was using a wing, Reed, as their PG. By season's end, Lecomte was an above-average ACC point on both ends of the floor. That kind of rapid development did not happen under Haith.
Miami's obviously not a "basketball school," nor is it likely to ever have a basketball program on par with its storied and infamous football program. But is there a way for Larrañaga to bring Miami basketball closer to parity with Miami football in the present day? Was the magical 2012-13 season close to that?
In 2012-13, Miami tripled the number of all-time sellouts at the Bank United Center. For two consecutive seasons, they have had guys like LBJ, D-Wade, and Kobe in attendance at home games. Miami basketball has made some serious progress.
Will they ever match the football squad? Let's use the Heat as an instructive example. Who would you guess was more popular in South Florida the past two seasons, UM football or LeBron and Co.? Fans down here flock to winners. If Miami basketball can win big, anything is possible. But, unlike the football team, they do not have a fertile recruiting ground in their backyard.
So it's a tough assignment. Right now, they have the right coach, and they also have a roster that is brimming with potential. I think, in the next two seasons, they can match what 2012-13 brought in popularity and at least come close to matching that year in terms of success.
Finally, what's your outlook for this game, and for the 2014-15 season in general?
Miami has so many new pieces that it is hard for me to imagine they go into UF and win. The good news is that they had a trip to Spain this summer where they built continuity. But let's not forget they have nine new players (including the transfers) on the squad this year. More than likely, they will gain some valuable experience in Gainesville in a losing effort that serves them well for ACC play.
I think once they gel, this is a top-five or -six team in the ACC, and an NCAA Tournament-caliber team. Given what the staff accomplished with so little last season, I expect that now that the cupboard is close to full, greater things lie ahead.
I basically agree with all of that, though I think tonight's game is likely to be close for quite a while. If Kasey Hill can get the better of Rodriguez, as he should, Florida is going to come out on top.