The freshmen and the bench came up big-time for the 25th-ranked University of Miami in Wednesday’s 87-81 home win over Wake Forest. Five Takeaways...
1. Senior guard JaQuan Newton says he doesn’t mind coming off the bench. In fact, he says he kind of likes it. As electrifying freshman Chris Lykes seems to be settling into his role as starting point guard, Newton has been providing a spark off the bench. Against Wake Forest, he went 6-of-12 for 16 points in 28 minutes. His aggressive moves to the basket got him to the free throw line six times.
“I was struggling early in the year, but good players don’t stay in slumps for long,” Newton said. “I’ve been putting in extra work in the gym, before and after practice, and it’s paying off. Coaches told me to just enjoy myself, cheer for everyone off the bench, and just do the extra stuff...I’m being more aggressive, looking in the mirror and getting back to what I’ve done my whole life.”
Asked if he minds coming off the bench as a sixth man, Newton said: “I kind of like it, honestly. I get to evaluate the game, see what’s open, how the defense is playing. I’m enjoying it so far. I have no complaints at all.”
2. Sam Waardenburg is becoming more and more of a key player. The 6-10 redshirt freshman from New Zealand came off the bench and hit a trio of three-pointers in the second half to help UM pull away when Wake Forest was threatening. He finished with 12 points, three rebounds, an assist and a steal in 17 minutes.
Waardenburg struggled with his confidence in December, but coaches met with him and told him he was trying to do too much, trying to be a playmaker when what they really wanted him to do was rebound, defend, shoot threes and play within himself. He heeded their advice.
“Coming off the Minnesota game (he went 0-for-2 with two turnovers), I didn’t think I played well,” Waardenburg said. “I know myself, and a I had a lack of confidence in my game. The coaches sat down with me and told me to stop turning the ball over. That’s my main focus every time I’m out there now. Just make sure I rebound and don’t turn the ball over, and the other stuff will come to me.”
Associate head coach Chris Caputo said he is delighted with Waardenburg’s progress.
“Sam is playing within himself, and really helping us,” Caputo said. “Early in the year, like most freshmen, he was trying to figure out where he fit in. He was putting the ball on the ground, trying to make great passes. And with the speed of the college game, that forces you into mistakes. We told him, `Shrink your game a little to allow it to be best it can be’, and that’s where he is right now.”
3. Chris Lykes continues to aggravate opponents. The UM freshman guard, generously listed at 5-7, is lightning quick and makes life difficult for players of all sizes.
One prime example was with seven minutes to go and Miami hanging on to a 56-53 lead. Lykes stripped Brandon Childress of the ball at midcourt, raced to the other end and dished it to Newton for a dunk. The Watsco Center crowd erupted and UM took a 58-53 lead. On the very next possession, Lykes made a long pass to Waaardenburg, who nailed a three to put the Canes ahead 61-53.
Lykes scored 13 points, was 6-of-7 from the free throw line and had five assists and a steal.
“Chris gave us a huge, huge lift, pressuring the ball,” said Caputo. “The biggest thing we’ve told him is `Continue to be a pest.’ A lot of times guys with that size they’re either a tremendous pest or a liability. He’s been a pest for us, sometimes throughout the game, and it’s been a big thing for us.”
Despite his pesky play, coaches have had to remind Lykes not to get too fancy.
“When he makes one of those mistakes, trying to do too much, we take him out,” Caputo said. “You don’t want to punish a guy for being aggressive and creative, but you have to understand the game. Those are teaching moments.”
4. The team’s most celebrated freshman, Lonnie Walker IV, continues to be as good as advertised. He has averaged 18 points in his starts, and had 19 against Wake Forest. He was 6-of-7 from the line, had four assists, three rebounds, and three blocks. It seems every time Miami needs a big play, it is Walker who comes up with the goods.
“The problem for us is he’s got a lot to his game,” Caputo said. “Sometimes, we’ve got to edge him on to get downhill a little more, get to the free throw line. In this game, he contested shots, had blocks. He’s starting to play great defense, and he is shooting confidently, stepping up.”
5. If the Hurricanes keep playing well, and Bruce Brown recovers from foot surgery in time for the ACC Tournament, Miami is capable of making a post-season run. Their upcoming games are at Boston College Saturday, at home against No. 2 Virginia on Feb. 13 (9 p.m., ESPN2), and at home against Syracuse. The Canes have won five of their last six games, and seem to be figuring out their roles. Stay tuned.