The University of Miami basketball season officially gets underway Friday with the women playing crosstown rival Florida International University at 6 p.m. at the WATSCO Center, followed by the UM men at 8 p.m. against Gardner-Webb.
Both Miami teams have had to replace key players, but coaches Katie Meier and Jim Larrañaga seem confident the returning players and freshmen will fill the gaps. The women open the season ranked No. 24 in the preseason poll, and the men’s team is ranked No. 13 – its highest-ever preseason ranking – and was picked to finish fourth in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Although the FBI investigation continues, nobody on the UM team has been charged, so they don’t expect anyone will.
The men’s team returns three starters, sophomore Bruce Brown, senior Ja’Quan Newton and junior Anthony Lawrence. Brown, coming off a sensational freshman season, has been selected to many preseason watch teams. Newton, who has been suspended a couple of times, is said to have matured.
Sophomore sharpshooter DJ Vasiljevic of Australia is back, and showed in a 106-79 preseason win over Newberry Colllege last week that he’s improved his touch. He led UM with 30 points, 19 of them in the first five minutes of the game, including five three pointers.
Perhaps the biggest reason the Canes are ranked so high is the addition of freshman guards Chris Lykes, a 5-7 dynamo from Mitchellville, Md., and 6-5 Lonnie Walker IV, the most highly-touted UM recruit in recent history. Walker led Reading (Pa.) High to its first state title, averaged 18.4 points per game, was named Pennsylvania’s Mr. Basketball, and McDonald’s All-American.
Walker was ranked No. 12 in the ESPN Top 100, and second at his position. He chose UM over Kentucky, Arizona, Syracuse and Villanova. Most experts are predicted he’ll be one-and-done, and bolt for the NBA after this season, but he says his only focus right now is improving his game and getting the Hurricanes to the NCAA Tournament.
“Everyone’s talking about one-and-done, but I’m here to win,” Walker said.
Like all college freshmen, Walker has had to get accustomed to life away from home. Coral Gables is a long way from Reading, Pa., so he has been learning how to manage money, how to grocery shop, and how to manage his schedule.
The two areas in which he’s doing just fine are in the classroom, where he’s always been a standout student, and in the kitchen.
His father, Lonnie III, is a chef. He used to work at Olive Garden, and treated the family to leftover chicken alfredo and chicken parmigiana. “He’d make the most amazing breakfasts, huge omelettes, tower waffles, you name it,” Walker said. “I learned how to cook from him, so I can definitely get by.”
Walker said his game has already improved under the tutelage of Larrañaga.
“Coach L is the most fundamentally sound coach I have ever seen,” Walker said. “He shows me the little things I need to do, the details, the things no other coach tells you.”
For example, Walker said he had a habit of stepping out of bound in the corner when he’s driving. Coach L gave him tips to avoid making that mistake. Walker can’t wait to get the season started.
“You know how when you ask a dog, `Do you want to go outside for a walk?’ he gets all happy. That’s me with the court. I’m overjoyed. I’m happy. I’m ready to go out and play.”
The women’s team also expects big contributions from freshmen Mykea Gray, Taylor Mason, Kelsey Marshall, Rebecca Ripley and Endia Banks. With key veterans injured – including Dutch players Emese Hof and Lauren Cornelius – the young players will have to step in right away. Meier said she loves their energy, and though they will make mistakes early, she is encouraging them to be aggressive and take chances.
“We’ve got a whole new team, starting all over again,” said sophomore Sarah Mortensen of Denmark. “Last year, I sat back and watched the older players, and now I have to teach the newbies what to do. But they’re learning, and they have a lot of heart and energy, so we should be fine.”
UM women vs. FIU, UM men vs. Gardner-Webb
When: Friday, 6 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Where: WATSCO Center, UM campus
Radio: WINZ-940 AM, WVUM-90.5 FM