The air was delicate, like a hospital waiting room. Those who spoke, did so in hushed tones. Any loss hurts, one that ends a season much more so, but for it all to happen that way made stares long and eyelids hang heavy.
As bad as Friday’s 78-58 loss to Michigan State was, it wasn’t hard to find hope in the Hurricanes’ locker room. For them, there was little reason to leave the BOK Center in Tulsa and sulk for long.
“I’m real disappointed in this loss, but overall, we did way better than anybody expected us to,” senior forward Kamari Murphy said. “That wasn’t the goal, to make the tournament and lose like this. But I’m happy about these guys. I’m going to watch next year. They’ll be even better.”
That last thought is the key to understanding why UM won’t be down for long.
Murphy and guard Davon Reed are the only departing players from Jim Larranaga’s team, which went 21-12 and won 10 of 18 ACC games, beat two top-10 opponents (North Carolina, Duke) and 18th-ranked Virginia on the road. They did so without a full roster; having lost several players to transfers and dismissals, UM started the year with nine players on scholarship. Six of them were freshmen or sophomores. Murphy, Reed and junior guard Ja’Quan Newton were the only ones who had played significant roles, and each was asked to perform new duties this year.
In a conference considered the strongest in the nation, Miami held its own. Nearly all of that group returns, and one of the league’s best recruiting classes is on the way. Guard Lonnie Walker is the third All-American player UM has recruited in the past two cycles (guard Bruce Brown and forward Dewan Huell are the others). With the continued development of big men Huell, Ebuka Izundu and Rodney Miller, point guard Newton (the lone senior on next year’s team) and role players like swingman Anthony Lawrence and sharpshooter D.J. Vasiljevic, the Hurricanes have the potential to go much further than the first round in 2017-18.
That will depend on Newton becoming more comfortable at the point. He’ll have waterbug freshman Chris Lykes, who goes about 5-foot-7, backing him up. Lykes should excite, but may not be able to play major minutes immediately. Newton, a scorer, must become equally good as a distributor.
It will depend on Brown climbing closer to his ceiling. The 6-foot-5, 200-pound combo guard showed what he can do against high-level opponents, like Duke and North Carolina. UM wants consistent excellence from him. Vasiljevic carved out a role as a shooter, with the ability to put the ball on the floor.
Walker, a high-flyer, and Lawrence will vie for time at the 3. Huell, an NBA-caliber athlete who is still developing his game, is likely to start at the 4. Sam Waardenburg, a 6-9 New Zealander who arrived midseason and redshirted, is likely to back him up. Izundu (6-10, 230) will be much tougher to defend as he gets stronger, since he has some crafty moves down low. An inexperienced player, he must learn how to defend without fouling. Incoming freshman Deng Gak (6-10, 200) and Miller (7-0, 258) give Miami options off the bench, but both are early in their development.
As with any college team, they must all grow, physically and skill-wise, in the offseason if they want to reach the tournament next year. This year’s group did that, which is why few in that locker room hung their heads after the pounding they took Friday.
“Extremely proud of these guys,” Reed said. “We never let that be a handicap for us, being a young team that was quote-unquote rebuilding. We just stayed resilient all year. We embraced that underdog role and kept fighting every game. We had some huge wins this year. I know Coach L is going to do some great things with this program in years to come.”
Reed, from Ewing, N.J., was a point guard as a freshman, a complimentary player as a sophomore and junior and became a larger part of the offense as a senior. Always a reliable defender, he finished 16th on UM’s career scoring list (1,343 points).
“I’m grateful to be a part of this program,” said Reed, who reached the NIT Final as a sophomore, the Sweet 16 as a junior and the first round as a senior. “It’s sad to end it like this, but I got a chance to do a lot of things a lot of college basketball players can’t say they’ve done.”
He believes anything is possible under Larranaga, who went to two Sweet 16s in four previous seasons but did perhaps his best job at UM this year. Every player on the roster improved, most significantly so Brown, who showed flashes of his potential as a high-level scorer, and Murphy, who added some shotmaking to his defense-and-dunks game. The Brooklyn, N.Y., native was UM’s leading rebounder (7.3 per game) and had a late-season stretch where he scored in double figures six times in nine games.
“He was playing as good as he can play, within himself,” associate head coach Chris Caputo said.
Caputo, who followed Larranaga from George Mason in 2011, said this season will be special regardless of the ending.
“There weren’t many days where it wasn’t fun,” he said. “They cared. They developed. Whatever valley we got into, everyone was working on getting back up the mountain. That part’s fun for everybody.”