Question 1: Let’s ignore the disaster that was the NCAA Tournament for a second (more on that later)…how would you rate this season?
Thomson: In the season preview, I said if Miami made the tournament – even if it was one and out – it would be a very successful season. I’m not going to go back on those words, especially with how the season transpired. If you want to take a narrow view, maybe you could make the argument that this team could have been better, but the program has only been to the tournament eight times since being revived in 1985. By all accounts, this was a transition year, and in our history, we have never made the tournament while transitioning from losing the type of talent we lost from a year ago. The ending leaves a bit of a sour taste in your mouth, but big picture, this was a very successful season.
Parasuraman: It has to be a success. In a rebuild year, making the NCAA Tournament is certainly a success. I will say, there were some individual disappointments, especially with the PG play. While the team results are about as good as we could expect coming into the year, I expected Jaquan Newton to be one of the better players in the ACC and that wasn’t close to happening. To that end, the Canes played excellent defense much of the year, and that carried them. That’s a testament to coaching and something to build on for next year.
Question 2: Reviewing the season preview, both of us expected the Canes to barely make the tournament. Instead, they were comfortably in. Is that reflection on the team overperforming the talent, or was there a misread on our part in terms of the quality?
Thomson: I do not think the team overperformed its talent level, and if anything, could argue it underperformed it at times. I also do not really think we misread the quality of the team in terms of its talent, either. I think Miami being comfortably in this year was more a byproduct of how weak the bubble was nationally, and that Miami notched two crucial wins (Duke, Syracuse) down the stretch to turn a potential bubble resume into an easy selection for the tournament. The inconsistency, although I suppose to be expected in hindsight, was what ultimately made it difficult to prognosticate this Miami team as, at times, they were very good, and at others, very bad.
Parasuraman: Based on the tournament performance, I think we can make a compelling case that the ACC was actually weaker than we expected. The talent ended up likely being less than we expected given that the Canes lost a lot of depth as the year wound down. I’m still trying to figure out how the Canes won 10 games in the ACC when I’m still not sure how any offense was generated. I think what ended up happening is that the Canes had enough marginal talent that would show up inconsistently, and when it showed up, they were able to beat anyone, but when it didn’t, they would get blown out. It’s also worth noting that there was a massive seed change for the Canes the last 2 years. And that change is with the crowd support. The Canes now have a luxury that every other school has had forever, which is a home court advantage. And they parlayed that into a 14-2 home court record, which helped them to overperform what I expected.
Question 3: The season obviously ended on an extremely bitter note. How disappointed were you in the NCAA Tournament performance?
Thomson: That’s a tough question. On a personal level, I had a lot going on (in a good way) during the opening round of the tournament, so a dreadful performance by the Canes would not, and did not, cause me any true personal disappointment. But, even throwing that aside, the frustrating part of this team was knowing they were certainly capable of beating Michigan State. And with Miami this year, when things were not good, they were often very, very bad. Knowing that was the M.O. of this team, it certainly sucked watching them get blown out, but it didn’t detract from the overall positive I found in this team this year.
Parasuraman: Somewhat. The Canes were a better team than Michigan State this year, and were the higher seed. Any time that happens, and you get blown off the court, there is some level of disappointment. Also, when you immediately build a 12 point lead and then lose by 20 (losing the rest of the game by 32 points), that’s a bit a ridiculous. With that said, I think Michigan State clearly had better players and the Canes’ deficiencies showed up vividly, especially with the lack of bulk inside. I think for me the most disappointing part was the lack of urgency and competitive response, both from the players and the coaches. With Michigan State slicing and dicing the Canes D, I’m really annoyed that Miami didn’t step up and try to pressure and at least disrupt them until it was really late in the game. When they finally did do that, Michigan State actually started turning the ball over, but it was way too late, and I’m just a bit confused as to how the Canes, after observing the turnover problems early for Michigan State, then watching them get in a groove and rip open the Canes D, did not at least attempt to press things and force turnovers. All would have probably been for naught anyway, but I did expect a competitive response that never arrived. It was embarrassing on that level.
Question 4: The Canes, for all their success this year, had the propensity to just get smacked off the court. 8 of 12 losses were by 9+ points. Is this simply a matter of being overmatched at times (this despite the fact that several of those losses were to teams they also notched wins against) or is there a greater issue here?
Thomson: I’ll take the cop-out answer here and say, “Yes.” You cannot overstate the importance of backcourt, and in particular, point guard, play at this level. When Miami was at their best, they had strong contributions from JaQuan Newton and Bruce Brown, getting everyone involved and limiting turnovers. When playing like that, Miami could and did beat the best teams it faced all year. When they struggled, particularly with turnovers, Miami got blown out. So in a sense, it asked a lot of two guys that are not natural point guards, but very talented basketball players. When it worked, it really worked. When it failed, it really failed. So the greater issue is in finding/developing a true point guard.
Parasuraman: I touched on this a bit earlier, but this team was deficient in many ways. There was a combination of inconsistent talent and lack of size. The only player we could really count on to contribute consistently was Davon Reed, and he was often forced into the role of both offensive initiator and spot up shooter, which can’t be done simultaneously. When Bruce Brown showed up, when DJ had his shot going, when Miami was able to hold off on the interior, they could compete and beat good teams. But too often, neither of those things happened, and the Canes would simply get blown away due to an inability to score and an inability to control the interior. I don’t think there is a larger issue, other than talent, that hopefully gets addressed in the upcoming recruiting class and with further development from Huell and Miller.
Question 5: Coach Larranaga has obviously done wonders with this program, making the NCAA Tournament 3 times and the Sweet 16 twice, while also winning an ACC Regular Season and ACC Tournament. In terms of his accomplishments, no other coach in America (save someone like Calipari coming in and getting a bunch of 1 and done players) could have notched this resume. But, as expectations rise, is there any concern that the Canes 3 best teams under Larranaga completely collapsed in their season ending losses, and what that could mean going forward?
Thomson: I have seen this discussed, but I think it is severely overstated. When you get into the tournament, it’s just too random. The 2013 Miami team had extremely bad luck – the entire team basically had the flu. The 2016 team, as good as it was by our standards, was also not on the same talent-level as Villanova, and besides, there was no hotter team in college basketball last year than Villanova. Many people thought Miami could lose its first-round game a year ago, and losing to Wichita State was THE trendy pick as well. This year, Miami faced a very young Michigan State team that was still considered more talented than Miami, and Tom Izzo is one of the best in the business. It’s hard for me to look at those three losses and become concerned moving forward. I would have been more worried if the team floundered in the ACC this season. If we turn into a program the next three or four years that consistently makes the tournament, but gets eliminated in the first weekend every year by blowouts, we can revisit it. But for now, it is a non-issue for me.
Parasuraman: I think each event is different. We’ve already discussed this MSU debacle, so no point in rehashing that, but I think that not showing up at all in that game is a problem. Last year was a different animal. Villanova was just too good. They came out and jumped all over the Canes. But Miami fought back, and made a game of it by halftime, before getting overwhelmed again in the 2nd half. I don’t think there was anything to do there other than tip your cap. 2013 is one of the more disappointing losses in school history. That team could have won the national championship. and to get blown out by a clearly inferior Marquette team is one we’ll regret for a long time. Coach L will continue to build the program, but it’s hard to imagine a path that open to the Finals again, and to not even give a good account of ourselves is galling. I don’t think there is any impact going forward, meaning I don’t think there is anything that Coach L is doing to cause these performances, and is likely more coincidental. We’ll see, though, because Coach L will continue to get us to the tournament, which will increase this sample size.
Question 6: Attrition has been a major issue for this program. This team conceivably should have had Manu Lecomte, DeAndre Burnett, James Palmer, and Omar Sherman…but all 4 transferred. Partially because of those defections, the Canes went the transfer route with Michael Gilmore and Rashad Muhammad. Both are no longer with the program, and the Canes ended up with only 8 scholarship players. You expect some churn at a major program, but this outwardly seems excessive. Is there any concern about the future stability of this program with this many moving parts?
Thomson: I think it is a valid concern, but also those moving parts is what 1) made making the tournament this year such a success, and 2) allowed Miami to bring in arguably the most talented roster this program has ever seen come next fall. Miami desperately could have used Manu Lecomte’s ball-handling and shooting this year, but he ultimately did not see himself beating out JaQuan Newton for major minutes, and that was his choice (and one that looks both foolish and smart considering he would have received major minutes this year for Miami, but also he’s playing major minutes for a Sweet 16 team at Baylor). As for the rest, the writing was on the wall about their minutes if they were not willing to put in the work for them. It is certainly rare at Miami to see our basketball team running off talented players, but you certainly have to appreciate the talent being recruited here as well.
Parasuraman: Yes, this is a problem. A combination of voluntary and involuntary premature exits from the program have certainly restricted the Canes’ ability to create depth. I’m not sure what it is, and Lecomte is obviously the name you look at where you think, “we really could use that guy,” but none of this is good for program stability. I guess we’ll see what happens this year, but I’m looking specifically at Huell and Miller to see if they get dejected, as they clearly expected more in Year 1. We don’t really know what caused the problems with Gilmore and Muhammad, but overall, this is a disturbing trend because it limits the program’s ceiling. If it continues, it is probably worthy of a lot more discussion.
Question 7: The Canes had 4 freshmen that were supposed to contribute this year: Bruce Brown, DJ Vasiljevic, Dewan Huell, and Rodney Miller. Brown became a key starter, Vasiljevic carved out a role…but Huell and especially Miller did not see much court time, with Huell oscillating between key/major minutes and DNPs. How would you rate the overall success of these freshmen?
Thomson: Well, I said in the preview article I had a basketball affinity for Bruce Brown, and that certainly did not disappoint. I hope he returns for a second year, but I see him as having the ability to have the best professional career of a Miami basketball player not named Rick Barry. So that was obviously a success. I can’t say I am surprised to see the two big guys “struggle” in their first year, but you could see glimpses from both, and certainly more so from Huell, that they have the talent to be really good. An easy comparison for Huell would be John Collins at Wake Forest, a highly regarded player coming out of high school two years ago, who struggled in his first year before exploding to average a double-double this year and put his name in the draft. While that is still a leap for Huell, he has the ability and will receive the playing time to be that kind of impact player a year from now, and with how big men have developed under this coaching staff, it’s reasonable to expect a big increase from both next year in terms of production. As for DJ, god bless him, 182 field goal attempts and 146 of them were from beyond the arc. Look, Miami desperately needs shooters, and other than Davon Reed, he was the best one on the roster. He’ll have more competition for minutes, especially with his size, but shooters are always in demand. With another year/off-season, hopefully the consistency improves.
Parasuraman: I expected a lot more out of Huell, if I’m being honest. I don’t know if that is fair or not, but when you see the words “McDonald’s All American” that raises the bar. With that said, some players take an extra year to blow up, and you can definitely see some raw talent there. I was actually most impressed with DJ, because you just don’t know how someone like that will adjust. I would be pretty surprised if all 4 aren’t major contributors next year, which is the sign of a good recruiting class. If Miller and Huell had improved quicker, it would have plugged a major front court gap for the Canes, so in that sense, it’s disappointing that they didn’t. But assuming no one transfers, this will go down as a very successful recruiting class.
Question 8: The 2 major losses from this roster this year will be Kamari Murphy and Davon Reed. Talk about their careers at Miami and do you anticipate difficulty in replacing their production?
Thomson: It’s hard to imagine many guys more reliable than Davon Reed, who truly blossomed into a leading scorer and defensive player that you could count on producing every time on the floor. He came into the program as a top-100 recruit, and produced – which is all you can ask for on the court. As for Kamari Murphy, when we transferred to Miami, it was instantly known what his role was going to be: clean up the glass, do the dirty work, be a nightly contributor – and that is what he did. It is easy to take for granted a transfer coming into the program and producing, after the success Miami has had here, but look what happened with Rashad Muhammad this year and you can’t take for granted what Murphy did. By all accounts, both players were standouts off the court and in the lockerroom, and that means quite a bit to a team such as Miami. As for replacing them, it’s crazy we are at a point where we say, “next man up” but here we are. Huell is the easy answer for replacing Murphy, as he needs to step-up and become a force- which I expect him to be. I’d also think incoming (well, already here) freshman Sam Waardenburg to get those minutes, too. Reed will be harder to replace as he did so many things from one position, but I suspect it will be more of a committee approach, with guys like Bruce Brown playing off the ball more (and hopefully developing a more consistent three point shot), Anthony Lawrence assuming more defensive responsibilities, and perhaps incoming freshman Lonnie Walker getting into the mix.
Parasuraman: I do believe leadership matters, and there is going to be a major hole for the Canes next year because of that. Reed was by far the most reliable player on the Canes, while simultaneously being the Canes shot creator and most reliable spot up shooter. Meanwhile. Murphy papered over the entire lack of size. He was completely undersized, yet battled legit ACC centers all year, and didn’t break. It is one of the more impressive under the radar aspects of this team. But I do think they can both be, if not replaced, then at least worked around. Miami should have more talent overall next year so you would expect that to replace Reed and Murphy. But it will also be a young team.
Question 9: The Canes added 4 key recruits that could contribute next year: Lonnie Walker, Chris Lykes, Deng Gak, and Sam Waardenburg. How do you see them fitting with the returning players in the rotation?
Thomson: Well, I suspect the answer to the point guard question gets answered by Chris Lykes. I have seen questions about his size transitioning to the ACC, but I’ve seen the tape and I’m not worried at all. First, I rarely worry about guys who are undersized high school basketball players becoming good college basketball players because those guys have been battling their entire lives against that issue – and he was still good enough to become a top 50 recruit in the country. Miami needs his PG play, and I think he makes everyone better next year. Lonnie Walker is one of the best recruits in the country, and I can envision times when both he and Bruce Brown cause major issues for opposing wing defenses. Deng Gak is another top 100 recruit, but as you see with most college big-men, it takes time to adapt to this level. Easy comparisons are Tonye Jekiri and Ebuka Izundu, but Gak has a higher (much higher) talent ceiling than they did coming out of high school. I suspect he’ll get minutes throughout the year, but is more a guy to watch a couple of years from now. As for Sam Waardenburg, he’s been with the team now for a few months, so I suspect he’s going to be better positioned to contribute next year. He’s the guy that should soak up the “dirty work” contributions from Murphy leaving, and be on the lookout for his sneaky athleticism and ability to stretch the floor. In short, it’s the best incoming class Miami has ever had in my opinion – now they need to produce.
Parasuraman: They should all play, and most should start. In the back court, Lykes is the favorite to start at PG, with Newton sliding into a 6th man role. Also, Walker is flatly the best recruit the Canes have ever landed, so he should start, as will Brown. Huell should start at the 4, and that’s where the question becomes which of Izundu, Miller, Gak, or Waardenburg is most ready to start. But what you can clearly see is a really strong rotation developing. The Canes should be able to roll out a 9-10 man rotation: Lykes, Brown, Walker, Huell, Izundu, Miller, Gak, Waardenburg, Lawrence, and DJ are 10 players you could expect to see minutes. Alternatively, with so many bigs, perhaps Gak or Waardenburg sees a redshirt, but Coach L normally likes to play bigs (he really couldn’t this year), so they might all play. In any event, you can see a really high quality rotation developing. And the best part is that Newton will be the only senior, meaning this could turn into a 2 year project.
Question 10: 2016-17 was always destined to be a transition year, with the Canes replacing Angel Rodriguez, Sheldon Mac (nee McClellan) and Tonye Jekiri. It’s always a good sign when you can make the NCAA Tournament in a transition year. On paper, 2017-2018 should be a more talented team. Take an extremely early look at the 2017-18 season and what you think are reasonable expectations for next year.
Thomson: Assuming no major departures (DON’T YOU DARE LEAVE BRUCE BROWN), I think the easy answer here is 20+ wins, top 6 ACC and another NCAA tournament selection. After that, it just depends on the draw. It is very rare to see guys not develop into better basketball players during their time at Miami, especially post players, so the question becomes how quickly these players get acclimated and reach their ceilings. Next season is one many Miami fans should be looking forward to, and hopefully it all comes together for a third straight NCAA tournament appearance.
Parasuraman: I expect a slow start with all the new pieces, but there is enough talent on this team once the rotation is worked out to compete at the highest level of the ACC. Minimum is making the NCAA Tournament, but that is selling the team short if that is the goal. They should be a Top 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament and compete for the Sweet 16. This year’s team fell flat in the tournament, but was good enough to earn an 8-seed. But dropping 2 key starters and replacing them with 4 players, as well as with expanded roles from Huell and Miller should lead to decidedly more talent. The beginning of the season might be rough, but I’m expecting Coach L’s third Sweet 16 team.