Hurricanes 2014-15 basketball primer: Roster gets another overhaul

Transfer Sheldon McClellan is expected to make an impact with the Miami Hurricanes this season.

Jim Dedmon

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -– Rodgers and Hammerstein’s seminal Broadway classic tune "Getting to Know You" has been referenced multiple times over the past seven decades.

Strange as it may seem, it best embodies the major theme of the 2014-15 University of Miami men’s basketball team.

When Miami opens the regular season by hosting Howard on Friday night, nine players will suit up as a Hurricane for the first time. This marks the second straight year the program will feature eight or more new players. Only one member of the Atlantic Coast Conference championship team of 2012-13 remains: senior center Tonye Jekiri.

"I’d like about another six months of practice, but the players I think are ready to play a game," head coach Jim Larranaga said last week. "They want to get out there, they want to compete. The coaches want to see them against outside competition. We need to do a really, really good job of playing as a unit. Sometimes it’s really hard early in the season to get everyone on the same page. It was almost impossible last year ’cause everybody had such a new role. This year it’s a little less challenging because so many guys have natural positions on the court."

Last year’s team finished 10th in the ACC with a 17-16 (7-11 ACC) record. Just 19.3 percent of its scoring, 24.0 percent of its rebounds, 28.6 percent of its assists, 26.1 percent of its steals and 24.2 percent of its blocks return.

Of the nine fresh faces, two — redshirt juniors Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan — are transfers that were around the program in 2013-14. Another, redshirt freshman Deandre Burnett, sat out because of an injury.

Rodriguez, sophomore Manu Lecomte and freshman Ja’Quan Newton are natural point guards. The latter can also play shooting guard. Burnett is a 2. Both McClellan and freshman James Palmer are small forwards. Freshman Omar Sherman can play either power forward or center, while graduate transfer Joe Thomas is a natural 4.

Still, there is room for versatility. McClellan expects to help out on the boards since the Hurricanes don’t boast a tall lineup. Burnett anticipates a varied emphasis on passing and scoring, depending on the opponent and matchups.

"I think the team’s been gelling pretty good," McClellan said. "It’s still a work in progress, guys getting familiar with each other’s roles and what different guys like to do."

With nine newcomers, chemistry will likely take awhile. Miami does, however, have an advantage over other teams.

This summer, it played four games in Spain — and won them all. Not only did the Hurricanes get to play together on the court, but they also visited and learned about historical sites around the country on a 10-day trip.

"It did a lot because everybody, nine new guys — I think only three returners — I think it helped bring us together," Burnett said of the Spain trip. "I think we’ve got pretty good chemistry, but I feel like any team playing brings chemistry more together. We’ll see."

Learning has become paramount.

During a meeting last week, Larranaga focused on defense, specifically the importance of defending elbows and blocks. Penetration — being able to prevent it on defense and create it on offense — will be crucial to Miami’s success. In order to explain the importance, Larranaga provided visual examples. To represent the defense, he brought out a colander to show how holes in a defense allow breakdowns and easy points. On offense, the players are still getting used to finding outlets once penetrating and drawing in defenders.

In last Thursday’s 74-58 victory over Eckerd in an exhibition, the Hurricanes recorded 16 assists and just nine turnovers. Three players — Rodriguez, Lecomte and McClellan — tallied multiple assists.

"I think we are progressing," Larranaga said. "There has been some improvement in each category with still a lot more improvement expected. We’re working on some very specific things. Some of the improvement has to be mental. Most people think it’s all about the physical effort, which nothing works without a great physical effort. But if you’re giving a physical effort but not doing the right things then you don’t improve. Or you don’t improve as much as you would when you’re doing the right things."

KEY LOSSES

Forward James Kelly, who averaged 6.0 points and 3.7 rebounds, transferred to Marshall. Sophomore guard Davon Reed scored 6.6 points per game and made 10 starts last year, but he is likely lost for the season after undergoing surgery for a lower-extremity injury.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Redshirt Junior G Angel Rodriguez: An All-Big 12 Second Team performer with Kansas State, Rodriguez sat out last season per NCAA transfer rules. Originally from Cupey, Puerto Rico, Rodriguez grew up in Miami and attended Krop High School. As a sophomore, he averaged 11.4 points, 5.2 assists, 2.1 rebounds and 1.5 steals in 33 starts for the Wildcats, leading them to the Big 12 Championship. He was named to the Cousy Award Watch list, given to the nation’s top point guard.

"I think he’s definitely going to be one of the top point guards in the conference without a doubt," McClellan said. "I think he’s up there with Marcus Paige (of North Carolina) and all the rest of the guards. He knows how to win. He’s going to be a great leader for us."

Redshirt Freshman G Deandre Burnett: Losing Burnett to a left wrist injury was a huge blow to an already shorthanded squad in 2013-14. As a senior at Miami Carol City High, he averaged 37 points, six rebounds and five assists per game. He ranked third in the nation in scoring as a 2012 Parade All-American.

"Just learning," Burnett said of the experience. "Last year it was just a big learning process even for the coaches. I just think last year was a big learning process, so I think I learned a lot just sitting out watching."

Graduate F Joe Thomas: Thomas fell into the program’s lap four days before the start of summer school. Larranaga’s coaches didn’t recruit him. Rodriguez, his former high school teammate, did. For a team lacking in height, the Hurricanes could use the 6-foot-7 Thomas to make an impact. He appeared in 33 games (10 starts) for Niagara last season, leading or matching the team in blocks 13 times and rebounds three times.

"I would say he’s an absolute great kid, fits in wonderfully with our team and is going to have a very important role," Larranga said.

DID YOU KNOW?

Larranaga is 14 wins shy of 550 career victories and three away from 300 conference victories over 30 seasons as a coach. Miami’s 14-man roster includes players from four countries — Belgium, Nigeria, Spain and the United States. Six states are represented: Florida, Texas, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New Hampshire, plus Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico. Since Larranaga took over, Miami has the fourth-most wins (31) of all schools in ACC play and the most combined wins (6) of any ACC school against the two winningest programs — North Carolina and Duke.

BURNING QUESTIONS

Can Angel Rodriguez stay healthy?

Rodriguez has been hampered by an ankle injury, but he played 30 minutes (second most on the team) in the exhibition win over Eckerd. According to McClellan, Rodriguez comes in and out for plays during practice in order to limit the strain on it. A similar situation arose last year with Adams. The trainer told Larranaga the guard wouldn’t be able to compete in half of the practices. But he did, and also started all 33 games. As Larranaga said, there is "no crystal ball" to predict injuries. 

"He’s still a little rusty, he’s a little bit anxious right now, but he’s also playing really hard," Larranaga said of Rodriguez. "It’s just a matter of getting some game minutes under his belt to help him relax and become the confident and skilled player he knows he’s capable of being."

Will the Hurricanes be able to keep up on the boards?

Miami will find itself at a distinct height disadvantage until Jan. 13, 2015, since NCAA rules have prevented 6-foot-10 forward Ivan Cruz Uceda from playing until then. Originally from Madrid, he spent two seasons at Harcum College before transferring to Miami. A player must be enrolled within one year after high school graduation. Other than Jekiri (7 feet), the next tallest player on the roster is Sherman (6-foot-8). The Hurricanes have seven players 6-foot-5 or shorter. Miami will rely on a guard-heavy rotation. In the exhibition win, the team started with four guards — Thomas, McClellan, Rodriguez and Lecomte. Eckerd outrebounded Miami 33-32.

"Something that happens more regularly is rebounding, and we want to be a very good defensive rebounding team ’cause we want to run," Larranaga said. "In order to create the tempo that we’re looking for it will be about our defense — our man-to-man defense and our scramble defense."

Can Miami exceed preseason media expectations?

The Hurricanes were picked to finish 10th out of 15 teams in the ACC by Operation ACC Basketball. But preseason rankings don’t mean much when looking back on how the standings have played out of late. Prior to the 2012-13 season, Miami was chosen fourth but ended up capturing its first ACC title. Last year, Virginia won the ACC after being picked fourth. The Hurricanes were expected to finish 12th and instead placed 10th.

"That’s what the writers get paid to do — make predictions," McClellan said. "Like Coach L said, the last three teams predicted to win the ACC haven’t won it, so it means nothing. The number next to the team means nothing. We’re just going to go out there and play hard every game no matter who it is."

Added Burnett: "It’s expected because of all the big names, and we’re Miami. We’ve got the Dukes and everybody else in our conference, but just got to prove everybody wrong. I feel we’ve got a lot of talent and we can prove a lot of people wrong."

You can follow Christina De Nicola on Twitter @CDeNicola13 or email her at cdenicola13@gmail.com.