Under the radar: Miami basketball 2012-13 preview

It’s easy to overlook basketball at the University of Miami. In their entire history they’ve advanced as far as the Sweet-16 just once, and their coach at the time – Leonard Hamilton – immediately jumped ship to the NBA. Since Coach Ham left they’ve managed two NCAA trips in 12 years, and until last season they’d never had a winning record in the ACC. Their 2nd year head coach will be 63 when the season begins. He replaced Frank Haith – causing celebrations in Miami – and then Haith (43-69 in the ACC at Miami) promptly led Mizzou to a 30-5 season. They don’t draw many fans. They haven’t produced a 1st round NBA pick since 2002. They’ve had one consensus top-25 recruit in the past 12 years. They’re a football school whose football program is in for a struggle.

Still, they were one of three schools to finish 9-7 in last year’s ACC, and unlike NC State they didn’t need the conferences easiest schedule to get there. Of the three who finished with better records, North Carolina lost four players in the NBA Draft’s first 17 picks, Duke lost the No. 10 pick in the draft, and FSU graduated six seniors. But this is Miami. So naturally another 9-7 finisher (NC State) is getting all of the preseason hype as the team who will break the Duke/UNC stranglehold atop the ACC, replacing Florida State. But if you’re a Miami fan you should be fine with that. Let the experts prattle on about the Wolfpack. Let your players get a chip on their shoulder. Let your coach do his thing.

What happened last year: The Canes began the season with big man Reggie Johnson rehabilitating from a torn meniscus. They were 5-4 when he returned to the court. They managed to win 10 of their next 13, but Johnson clearly wasn’t the same player. He set career lows in virtually every meaningful category (ORtg, eFG%, offensive and defensive rebound %, block %). But his return allowed the staff to be more flexible with 6-11 Kenny Kadji. The transfer from Florida was used more on the outside in pick-and-pop situations, and he made 42% of his 3s. On the perimeter junior Durand Scott provided his typical physical, attacking game, but his running mate – senior Malcolm Grant – struggled all season, likely due to tough personal issues. Trey McKinney-Jones partially took up the slack from beyond the arc, but still, Grant took about twice as many 3s as any other player on the team and only made 33%. Freshman Shane Larkin provided some exciting moments at the point guard spot intermixed with moments of freshmanitis. And sophomore Rion Brown flourished under the new staff, taking on a bigger and bigger role as the year progressed. He made 39% of his 3s and finished with the highest offensive rating on the team.

After a five game winning streak to push their ACC record to 6-3, the Canes limped down the stretch. They finished 3-4 in conference, 1-1 in the conference tourney, and 1-1 in the NIT. They ended the season by being blown out at home by Minnesota.

Miami finished with the No. 41 offense in the nation, and the No. 73 defense. Limited to ACC games, those rankings were No. 3 and No. 5.

What they lost: A year ago it would be hard to imagine that losing Malcolm Grant wouldn’t be a huge deal. But – without being disrespectful – he didn’t play well last season, and in light of what happened in his family, no one could blame him. In his first two seasons after transferring from Villanova he shot 41% and 42% from beyond the arc. As a senior he struggled. Last year’s Malcolm Grant can be replaced. The other senior was DeQuan Jones. He was an elite recruit who never panned out. He never once had an offensive rating which reached 100.

What they have: A lot. Reggie Johnson has battled his weight for years, but unlike so many who lost that fight, Johnson blossomed into one of the best bigs in the conference as a sophomore. Then his injury. He never quite regained his form last year, but there’s no reason to think he can’t this year. His injury was to his meniscus. If there’s a player in the ACC who can be just fine on one meniscus, it’s Johnson. He’s a huge body with an exceptional pair of hands and feel for the game. He doesn’t need deception. He doesn’t need lateral moves. After Johnson comes Kenny Kadji, and together the two form the best C/PF combo in the conference. Kadji can shoot. Kadji can be deadly off of screens. He’s mobile for a 6-11 guy, and defensively he was the 6th best shot blocker in the conference.

Trey McKinney-Jones and Rion Brown will battle it out on the wing in what will most likely be a 3-guard set. Whoever doesn’t start will be a valuable 6th man. Neither are overly aggressive looking for their shots, and both take more 3s than 2s. Brown takes cares of the ball, whereas McKinney-Jones does a better job involving his teammates. But the real firepower is at the traditional guard spots. If Durand Scott played in the Triangle he’d be a conference star – instead he toils in relative anonymity in Coral Gables. He’s the type of New York guard who creates the stereotype of New York guards – in three years he’s gotten to the free throw line nearly 400 times – and he’s best when he’s attacking near the rim or with his mid-range game. Sophomore Shane Larkin has all the tools to be an elite ACC point guard, and he’s too quick off the bounce for most guards to stay in front of him. Once he gets beyond the mistakes of youth he’ll be a player to watch.

Bishop Daniels, a highly touted recruit in last year’s cycle, returns after breaking his foot and missing all of last year with a redshirt. Extremely athletic, but a bit raw, a year off should have helped his game even if it was a frustating way to begin college. Julian Gamble returns for his 2nd senior season and will provide depth up front. 6-6 Garrius Adams, 6-6 Erik Swoope and 6-10 Raphael Akpejiori round out the bench. They’re all serviceable options whose job is not to mess up.

Miami’s two man one man recruiting class is a local kid in 6-10 Tonye Jekeri. He’s relatively new to basketball, but has tremendous athleticism and potential.

Where they’re going: Their is a best case/worst case schism for Miami which is larger than most teams. If Reggie Johnson is still of limited value and Shane Larkin doesn’t make a big jump from his freshman to sophomore seasons, then it will be another long year on the bubble. But if Johnson is back at full speed, Larkin improves at the point, and the rest of the starters show a small improvement, then Miami will surprise a lot of people. They won’t be the favorite in the ACC (and they shouldn’t be), but they’re one of the teams that could win it. If all goes well they could earn a 3-seed in the NCAA.