Between dealing with the fallout of an NCAA probe, the highs of a run to an ACC title and the Sweet 16, and now a roster overhaul thanks to big time departures, transfers and injuries, coach Jim Larrañaga on Monday referred to his first three seasons at the University of Miami as “the most variety of challenges” he’s ever faced as a coach.
Well, here’s another one coach. Tuesday, UM indefinitely suspended forward James Kelly — a key player off the bench in a nine-man rotation — for violating team rules. Kelly (6-7, 246) ranks fifth on the team in scoring (7.0) and rebounds (4.0) and was averaging nearly 20 minutes a game, most of them off the bench.
“James is a fine young man, but we need him to have a clear focus on what is expected of a student-athlete at the University of Miami,” Larrañaga said in a statement released by the school.
A source close to the team told the Miami Herald that Kelly’s suspension was expected to last three games — including Wednesday night when Notre Dame (14-12, 5-8 ACC) visits the BankUnited Center for a 9 p.m. tip-off.
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Still looking for their first conference win at home and with six regular season games left, the Hurricanes (12-13, 3-9 ACC) have been facing depth issues all season. The loss of four guards — freshmen Corn Elder and Deandre Burnett (injuries), and juniors Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan (NCAA transfer rules) — has forced many on the roster to play out of position, Larrañaga said.
The result: the Hurricanes have morphed from a fast-paced, get-up-the-floor team a year ago with first round pick Shane Larkin running the point to a slow-grinding, deliberate, wait-for-the-open-shot offense.
UM, averaging nearly nine points fewer a game (61) than last season, ranks last among 351 Division I basketball teams in offensive possessions per game (60.1). Their new zone defense, on the other side, meanwhile, does the same slowing down to their opponents.
Most nights, Larrañaga’s strategy has paid off as the Hurricanes have been within striking distance late in all but one of their first dozen ACC games, a 21-point loss to Duke at home on Jan. 22. But when players do not make wise decisions or make those open shots with the shot clock winding down, it usually spells doom for the Canes.
Last week’s road trips to Florida State and Virginia Tech paint an excellent picture of his team’s inconsistency, Larrañaga said. UM was the perfect mix of efficient (7 of 15 on three-point attempts) and aggressive (24 of 33 from the free throw line) in a 77-73 win over the Seminoles. They were the opposite (7 of 34 on three-pointers) and (8 of 17 on free throws) in a 52-45 loss against the Hokies on Saturday.
“Our lack of success at home can really be attributed to our lack of consistency throughout the year,” Larrañaga said. “We just don’t play the same way on a regular basis — the individual player. A lot of that is guys playing out of position.
“Our big guys are limited in their scoring ability. Tonye [Jekifiri] and [Raphael Akpejiori] don’t score a lot at the five. So that puts pressure on the other guys to deliver and that allows the opponent to focus on the guys who shoot. We’d like to play a whole lot better Wednesday night.”