The average sports fan may not remember who played in the previous season’s National Invitation Tournament final, but University of Miami men’s basketball fans surely remember it well.
Last season ended at Madison Square Garden for the Hurricanes, with a thrilling, but heartbreaking overtime loss to Stanford in the NIT championship game.
Watching from the bench were injured starters Angel Rodriguez, nursing a wrist injury, and Tonye Jekiri, who was out after suffering a concussion in the semifinal. Guard Manu Lecomte, who has since transferred to Baylor, played only five minutes that night and aggravated a knee injury.
It was that kind of season for the Canes. There were big moments, tempered by setbacks.
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The Hurricanes opened the season 8-0, beat then-No. 8 Florida in Gainesville, entered the AP poll at No. 15, and beat Illinois in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. They picked up a few huge conference wins — a 90-74 road victory at then-No. 4 Duke and a road win over Syracuse in front of 31,000 fans at the Carrier Dome.
But, there were crushing defeats — 68-55 to Green Bay and, even more humiliating, 72-44 at home to Eastern Kentucky.
Miami finished the season 25-13 (10-8 in the Atlantic Coast Conference) and did not get selected for the NCAA Tournament. The Canes settled for the NIT, and made the most of it.
“Had Angel not hurt his wrist, I think it could have been a spectacular year,’’ UM coach Jim Larrañaga said. “It was a very good year. We won 25 games, and played in April for the first time in school history.’’
Almost everyone is back from that team, healthy and determined to use their NIT success as a springboard to the NCAA Tournament.
Lecomte, Deandre Burnett (Ole Miss) and Omar Sherman (Paris, Texas, Junior College) transferred. But the Canes hope to make up for the losses with Oklahoma State transfer Kamari Murphy, who is an experienced junior, and freshmen Ebuka Izundu and Anthony Lawrence Jr., whose father played for UM in the early 1990s.
Murphy is known as a tenacious rebounder and defender, and skilled enough to handle the ball if he has to. He is also, like Rodriguez, a vocal leader.
“Love him,’’ Larrañaga said of Murphy. “Last year, I thought there were two areas we needed to improve and give attention to. Kamari Murphy does both very well. He is an outstanding defender and rebounder. He can guard one through five. That’s how quick he is. … Once he’s settled in, maybe 10 games in, he’s going to be really, really good.’’
Added Rodriguez: “Kamari brings what this team needed — somebody else to be very vocal, what I call a dog. He not only gets himself going, he gets everybody going.’’
Another player expected to make a big contribution this season is the leaner, quicker Ivan Cruz Uceda. The 6-10 Senior from Spain slimmed down from 237 lbs. to 217 lbs. and dropped his body fat from 24 percent to nine percent.
He is faster, quicker, stronger, jumps higher, and is more confident. With Uceda and 7-footer Jekiri, UM should be formidable in the paint.
“Ivan is in for a great senior year,’’ Larrañaga said. “He was bound and determined to become a better athlete. Last year from a defensive standpoint, he struggled guarding ball screens. This year, he’s much more comfortable. He’s a much better Ivan than a year ago.’’
The backcourt should be strong with proven scorer McClellan, reliable Davon Reed, and floor general Rodriguez, who is determined not to repeat his roller coaster season.
“My goal is to be more consistent, and have a great assist-to-turnover ratio,’’ Rodriguez said. “We have a very good chance of doing something special, but we have to be consistent and make sure we make it about the team rather than the individual.
Rodriguez, a native of Puerto Rico, is especially pumped about the schedule because the Canes are playing three games in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Nov. 19-22. He hasn’t played there since moving to the United States at age 15, and said many friends and family members will be there.
▪ The schedule also includes several marquee home games. The Canes host Nebraska Dec. 1, Florida on Dec. 8, Princeton Dec. 29, Syracuse Jan. 2, Florida State Jan. 9, Duke Jan. 25, Notre Dame Feb. 3, and Louisville Feb. 27.
C Ebuka Izundu, Fr., 6-10, 210 lbs.; C Tonye Jekiri, Sr., 7-0, 248 lbs; F Anthony Lawrence Jr.; Fr. 6-7, 210 lbs.; G Sheldon McClellan, Sr., 6-5, 200 lbs.; G Rashad Muhammad, Jr., 6-6, 160 lbs.; F Kamari Murphy Jr., 6-8, 220 lbs.; G Ja’Quan Newton, Soph., 6-2, 185 lbs.; G James Palmer, Soph., 6-5, 202 lbs.; G Davon Reed, Jr., 6-6, 210 lbs.; G Mike Robinson, Fr., 5-10, 170 lbs.; G Angel Rodriguez, Sr., 5-11, 185 lbs.; F Chris Stowell, Soph., 6-6, 190 lbs.; F Ivan Cruz Uceda, Sr., 6-10, 217 lbs.
Nov. 4 (exhibition) Dowling; Nov. 13 UT Rio Grande Valley; Nov. 16 Louisiana; Nov. 19-22 Puerto Rico Tip-Off (field includes Mississippi State, Texas Tech, Utah, Butler, Minnesota, Missouri State, Temple); Nov. 27 Northeastern; Dec. 1 Nebraska; Dec. 5 Charlotte; Dec. 8 Florida; Dec. 19 Charleston; Dec. 22 @LaSalle; Dec. 29 Princeton; Jan. 2 Syracuse; Jan. 9 Florida State; Jan. 12 @Virginia; Jan. 16 @Clemson; Jan. 20 @Boston College; Jan. 23 Wake Forest; Jan. 25 Duke; Jan. 30 @NC State; Feb. 3 Notre Dame; Feb. 7 @Georgia Tech; Feb. 9 Pittsburgh; Feb. 14 @FSU; Feb. 17 Virginia Tech; Feb. 20 @North Carolina; Feb. 22 Virginia; Feb. 27 Louisville; March 2 @Notre Dame; March 5 @Virginia Tech; March 8-12 ACC Tournament, Washington, D.C.