University of Miami

Inexperienced Miami Hurricanes hoops team will rely heavily on forward Tonye Jekiri

UM’s Tonye Jekiri, right, grabs a rebound against Joey van Zegeren of Virginia Tech at BankUnited Center in Miami on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013.
UM’s Tonye Jekiri, right, grabs a rebound against Joey van Zegeren of Virginia Tech at BankUnited Center in Miami on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013. El Nuevo Herald

It remains to be seen how the University of Miami men’s basketball team will do in the 2014-15 season, but one thing seemed certain as the Hurricanes opened practice Friday afternoon: Nobody in the Atlantic Coast Conference has less experience.

Seven of the nine scholarship players on the active roster are newcomers. There are no seniors. The only two returnees are junior forward Tonye Jekiri and sophomore point guard Manu Lecomte, who combined for 11.9 points and 7.6 rebounds per game last season on a team that finished 10th in the ACC with a 7-11 league record and a 17-16 overall record.

There was supposed to be a promising third returning player, sophomore guard Davon Reed, a tenacious defender, but he underwent surgery on his “left lower extremity” and is out four to six months. Junior college transfer Ivan Cruz Uceda, a 6-10 Spaniard expected to be a key rebounder, was declared ineligible for the first half of the season because he didn’t sign with a college team within a year after graduating high school.

Coach Jim Larrañaga enters his fourth season at UM with more questions than answers.

“As a coach, you’re not 100 percent certain what you’re going to get,” he said. “When a coach has coached a player for a year or two, he has seen what he’s capable of, strengths and weaknesses. In this case, it’s going to take us a while.”

Larrañaga said his six guards will have to rebound and defend taller players, and he challenged Jekiri to step up.

“Tonye needs to step up in every category, and I told my coaches Tonye can expect me to be a blanket on him. He’s gonna wear me; and I’m gonna wear him out because he’s such a vital part of this team this year. He’s got experience of playing on the [ACC] championship team as a freshman, having been a starter last year. With each year his responsibilities grow, and this year we expect him to be a double-double guy. We need numbers. Anything less than that, he can expect me not to be happy.”

The Hurricanes will rely heavily on transfers Angel Rodriguez (“Our floor general,” Larrañaga said) and Sheldon McClellan (“a high-octane scorer”), both guards who sat out last season.

Rodriguez is a Miami Krop High grad who left Kansas State after earning second-team All-Big 12 honors as a sophomore. A native of Puerto Rico, he is delighted to be closer to home and family, surrounded by friends, immersed in Latin culture. His mother and younger brothers booked tickets to see him play and will spend Christmas in Miami.

“I won a Big 12 championship, had a great experience at K-State, but do I miss it? No. I’m too happy here,” Rodriguez said. “I love the city of Miami so much. They had great fans in Manhattan [Kansas] … good ribs and steak, but I needed some rice and beans and all that Cuban and Puerto Rican food.”

McClellan was the leading scorer at Texas two years ago (13.5 ppg), but never clicked with coach Rick Barnes. He decided to transfer to UM after watching the Hurricanes play in Austin during the 2013 NCAA Tournament. He was the Canes’ leading scorer on their summer tour in Spain, and is eager to make an impact.

“It felt great to get back in playing mode,” McClellan said. “I was a little nervous at first, but once I hit my first basket, I was fine. I’m excited to play with Angel because I’ve always played against him and I’d rather have him on my side of the court.”

Freshmen to watch include Ja’Quan Newton of Philadephia, a 6-1 guard; James Palmer, a 6-5 guard from Washington; and Omar Sherman, a 6-8 forward from Duncanville, Texas. DeAndre Burnett, the former Carol City guard, returns after missing last season as a medical redshirt.

Miami opens the season Nov.6 with a home exhibition against Eckerd College. The regular-season opener is Nov.14 against Howard. UM has three ACC home games against opponents that finished in the Top 25 in 2014, including preseason No.7 North Carolina (Feb.28), league newcomer No.10 Louisville (Feb.3) and No.12 Virginia (Jan.3). The Canes play on the road against preseason No.2 Duke (Jan.13) and No.21 Pittsburgh (March4).

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