Question 1: Describe your feelings on the Loyola game, in particular the ending?
Thomson: If there was a fitting end for this Miami Hurricanes team, this was probably it. This was a team that was all over the place this year in terms of focus and effort, a team that won and lost so many games in the final 30 seconds, and this game was a perfect embodiment of the entire season. Getting to the tournament and losing to anyone sucks, but there are certain losses that are more “acceptable” than others. Losing on a last-second shot to a double-digit seed is the stereotypical March Madness moment, and we just happened to be victims of it. Now that we’ve seen Loyola go on a run to the Final Four (albeit, with a rather beneficial draw), it does take some of the sting out of the loss.
Parasuraman: Devastation. I’m not going to call out players by name here, because, frankly, all the players made huge mistakes. We should have put that game away multiple times in the second half. Twice, up 7, there was a huge bonehead error that turned what should have been a 9-point lead into a 5-point lead. There was the sequence where it looked like we had a fast break, then dribbled the ball off of another teammate’s foot, resulting in a fastbreak for Loyola. There were all the late game turnovers (the Canes only attempted 2 shots in the last 4 minutes). There were the missed FTs. And with all that, if the Canes defend and close out, they win. When Loyola hit the winner, I just crumpled. We obviously care too much about this sort of thing, but you grow with these kids all season, and I felt awful for them. I’m not really going to do the whole “what could have been” thing given that Loyola is in the Final Four, because the transitive property does not work in sports. The Canes, however, should have at least made the 2nd round.
Question 2: Rate this season on a scale of 1-10 (with 10 being the highest)?
Thomson: I’ll go with a 6. There was a lot of good to come out of this season, particularly the star-powered play out of young Lonnie Walker. Once he became acclimated, his game really took off and he carried the Canes at times. But it was also infuriating to watch a team with so much potential, struggle so long to truly find itself, and then to lose Bruce Brown for most of the important ACC stretch. On paper, this team had so much potential, and it just never really materialized. Honestly, it may be a long time for the Canes to put this much talent on paper onto a court in Coral Gables again. These are the situations where you need a little bit of luck if you are a “Miami” type program, as compared to the constantly reloading blue blood programs of the country.
Parasuraman: 7. I’m still not at the point where I’m just going to dismiss making the NCAA Tournament. I view 2013 as a 9, and 2016 as a 8. This was definitely worse than those 2 years, but finishing 3rd in the ACC without Bruce Brown much of the year is not anything we should just gloss over. The ending of the season will always leave a bitter taste in our mouths, and there was so much more left in this team. In that sense, it is definitely disappointing, but I grade in a vacuum.
Question 3: Ja’Quan Newton graduates. He had an up and down career, but really came on the last month or so, particularly on defense and with hitting some big shots. Can you talk about how big of a loss he will be?
Thomson: One of the more frustrating players Miami has had come through the program, but as noted, one that really came into his own during his senior year. While a lot of the frustrating moments of his career were due in part to his own decisions, both on and off the court, there is a lot to be said for a guy that commits to the program and the team, and rides it out good and bad for all four years as Newton did. We all make bone-headed decisions, so I’m not going to judge his off the court transgressions. However, I would also like to point out that Newton was really put in a bunch of difficult situations on the court as well. He was never a “true” point guard, as he was always going to be a combo scoring guard whose size forced him into a more distributing role. When he was given the opportunity to be the scoring guard, he always thrived. It’s hard to say how much Miami will miss him next year without knowing how the roster truly shakes out, but he still had a very productive career here.
Parasuraman: Bigger than we’ll want to admit. He really emerged as a leader down the stretch of the season, taking and making big shots for this team (including the should have been game winner against Loyola). From a purely basketball standpoint, he was the team’s best defender and frankly the only player that really appeared to play defense every possession. The entire team will need to step up to fill his void in terms of defense, but leadership, you need to look to Dewan Huell and Amp Lawrence as possible leaders next year. Newton’s career never got where we wanted it to go, but he was a fighter and brought an edge to this team that will be hard to replace. There are other players capable, but they’ll need to show leadership, which was really lacking outside of Newton.
Question 4: The common narrative is that this was Coach Larranaga’s most talented, and most underachieving team. Do you agree?
Thomson: Easily, but the injury to Bruce Brown changes the talent argument for sure, and to some degree, the achievement level as well. Miami still exceeded the ACC media expectations for this season, and that was factoring in a full season of contribution from Brown. Coach L has still beat the ACC media expectation every single year he has been in Coral Gables. While that is due in some part to how the media look down on Miami as a basketball school, exceeding expectations in a year in which you lose your best (or second best) player for most of the ACC season is something to be commended. Unfortunately, no matter the injury, this season will always be viewed as the one that got away, as the team did not exactly look as dominant as we hoped even before Brown went down.
Parasuraman: I deny the entire premise of the question. The 2013 and especially the 2016 teams were more talented than this team. Lonnie Walker was the biggest recruit and looks to be the highest draft pick the Canes have had. And Bruce Brown will likely also go in the first round. So, in that sense, the Canes had 2 first round picks, something they’ve never had before. But Brown basically didn’t play once ACC games started, so it just becomes Walker. Going back to 2016, the Canes had Angel Rodriguez, Sheldon McClellan, Davon Reed, Kamari Murphy, and Tonye Jekiri starting. That is just a much more talented group than this year’s team when Brown’s absence is accounted for. With that said, this team clearly should have won another game, and made the 2nd round of the NCAA Tournament, so they underachieved. But actually, and it was impossible to have this perspective at the time given that we were coming off the high of the ACC Championship, but given what the 2013 team accomplished, that team should have made the Final Four, and losing to Marquette still stings more than any other loss. That team “blew it” more than any other.
Question 5: When Coach Larranaga was hired, we couldn’t have dreamed of this amount of success. But stagnating as a cut below the top of the ACC, and a tournament threat feels hollow. Is there a way to take this program to another level so that there is annual competition with Duke, UNC, and UVA? (note: This means in the ACC, the next question will focus on the tournament)
Thomson: I would argue that we already compete annually with Duke, UNC and UVA within the ACC, as we frequently can beat those schools head-to-head and continually finish above expectations. That being said, the true answer to this question is “No, at least not under the current rules of the NCAA.” The system is designed to ensure that the best of the best players find themselves at the elite programs in college basketball. Under the bogus one-and-done system, those players will continue to find themselves at the top of the ACC (at least UNC and Duke). The best way for Miami to compete at that level is to find the players that are very, very good but yet not true NBA candidates; and then have those players stay in the program for at least three years. Perhaps you land a player of Walker’s ability every couple of years that could push you over the top, but it’s more likely to be a veteran team that grows together. And for the most part, that has been the key to Miami’s success under Coach L.
Parasuraman: Need more Lonnie Walkers. As silly as it seems, if Lonnie goes pro and gets drafted high, it might be better long-term for the program. Cause that’s how the Duke and UNC’s of the world compete. UVA is much more of a system team, but Miami needs to continue to recruit at the highest level, and if Walker shows you can come to Miami then be a lottery pick, more will follow. The bottom line is the reason that Duke and UNC are competing at the top of the ACC every year is because they pull in blue chip recruits. If Miami does not do that, they will not be able to compete for ACC titles year-in and year-out. And, frankly, I don’t know if that is a realistic goal.
Question 6: Over a 2-week period. the Canes beat UNC on a buzzer beater, and then had their season end on one. There are fine margins in college basketball, largely because no one is that good. Does the tournament crap shoot (and that is what the tournament is) mean that the Canes just have to hope to get “lucky” one year, or is there something systemically they can do to be better prepared for the uniqueness of the end of season tournament (They’ve made the tournament 4 times under Coach Larranaga, and lost to a lower seed 3 of those 4 times)?
Thomson: Everyone has to get lucky in the tournament. Auburn had one of its best seasons in the past 30 years, and got blown out by Clemson and was home on the first weekend. Arizona has not made a Final Four in countless years despite consistently recruiting at the top of college basketball. North Carolina was one of the better teams I’ve seen coming into this tournament, and yet found itself home slightly later than the Canes. Throughout, you have experienced teams go home early; you have uber-talented teams go home early. Ultimately, the NCAA tournament is just a beast of randomness in which mostly the best teams find themselves in the Final Four, but all it takes is a few instances of madness to deliver the unexpected. I will say this- for a school like Miami to go on a run, it is going to take exceptional stability in the backcourt, which without Bruce Brown, the Canes just did not have the answers this year.
Parasuraman: Yes, the solution is simple. Better fundamentals. Miami lost this year because they had poor fundamentals by way of turnovers and missed FTs. In that sense, the ending of the season was predictable. The tournament does have a sense of randomness, a lucky play here, a lucky shot here, a missed bounce, one mistake. You’ll never remove all that randomness. But time and again, you see teams with sloppy fundamentals bow out. You can coach ball security, situational awareness, and FTs. That is a way to mitigate the risk of collapse at the end of games, and prevent the randomness of the tournament from biting you. And ultimately, that’s what sports is. Playing percentages. And the way you increase your percentages is by playing fundamentally sound. There are 2 teams in the Final Four, Michigan and Loyola, who advanced via buzzer beaters after their opponents, Houston and Miami, missed FTs to open the door.
Question 7: Which players do you think need to develop most in the offseason (assumes Bruce and Lonnie are gone)?
Thomson: Well, if Bruce and Lonnie are gone, then the answer is everybody. In all seriousness, Chris Lykes is going to have to turn into a dependable, nearly 40 minute per night player without any other true point guard options on the roster. Perhaps the Canes find a transfer that can help with PG duties, but it looks rather bleak right now. He had a very solid freshman season, but he’s going to be forced into a much larger role, and arguably, the most important one on the team. There were times he really struggled defensively at this level, so his commitment on that end should be a focus as well.
Parasuraman: There are 3 players I’m really looking at: (1) Dewan Huell, (2) Amp Lawrence, and (3) Chris Lykes. Huell must work on a jumper. He has great quickness and finishes well, but if he could hit jumpers, even mid-range, then he would be a huge offensive weapon. Amp Lawrence just needs consistency. Against NC State, he put on one of the all-time best Miami performances. At other times, he completely disappeared. As a senior, he needs to give us something consistently. And Lykes needs to fix his entire defensive game. He showed an ability to be a pest, getting steals and drawing offensive fouls. But now he needs to consistently keep his man in front of him, and most importantly, fight through screens maintaining focus. His size will always be a limitation, but he needs to avoid situations where Coach Larranaga needs to determine whether to play him for offense or bench him for defense.
Question 8: Regardless of who leaves (we know who probably will), the FBI scandal (of which Miami has basically been cleared, but not reported as such) decimated the recruiting class. Not talking specific players, but should Miami be looking for Grad Transfers/Junior College players that can play right away with more experience, or freshmen that might have slipped through the cracks (most top recruits are already committed elsewhere)? The Canes did get Shane Larkin in the summer, but that is rare. Also, does it make sense to play down several scholarship players or would you take a flyer on guys you would otherwise not recruit to Miami?
Thomson: Miami really has no choice, in my opinion, but to take on a few transfers that can play right away. I would not waste time trying to recruit players that you did not think highly enough of previously, but quality transfers, preferably a grad transfer at that, that can help stopgap the next year to overcome the lack of incoming freshmen is paramount if we want to continue our tournament streak.
Parasuraman: You never want to take kids just to fill out the roster. That just leads to bad problems down the road. If they are on some incoming freshman that have not yet signed, definitely see that through. But most of the top recruits have already signed, and you don’t want to reach for someone. With that said, the JUCO and Grad Transfer market is different. These are precisely the type of stop-gap players the Canes need to essentially replace the lost recruiting class of 2018. Getting a few guys that can come in and contribute for a year or 2 would be perfect for Miami to bridge the gap. I don’t know specific players, but Miami needs help in the back court and on the wing, so those positions at the Grad Transfer and JUCO level are the targets.
Question 9: I’m not going to ask for highlights (Newton buzzer beater) and lowlights (Loyola buzzer beater), because they’re obvious. But how will this season be remembered?
Thomson: I think we’ve covered this, but to take a different angle, can we stop with the calls for Coach L’s job? A lot of people made this ridiculous demand in the leadup and aftermath of the tournament. Miami has never had a coach as successful as Coach L in which we now make the postseason on an annual basis. We are a difficult matchup against ALL opponents, and frequently beat North Carolina and Duke. Take a look around college basketball, there are some truly big time programs of not too long ago that are now struggling to be average, much less good: Pittsburgh, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, Georgetown, St. Johns, Maryland, Illinois just to name a few. I am not saying it is “acceptable” to not strive to be the best, but I have zero doubt that Coach L and his staff wants nothing more than to be the most successful program it possibly can be every single year.
Parasuraman: It’ll be the Loyola game, unfortunately. It was a season of the Canes overcoming adversity, injuries, and boneheaded plays to find ways to win. In this instance, it was the exact opposite and a horrible lasting impression. Had Miami won that game and lost to Tennessee by 10 points or something, the Newton shot would be what is remembered. But this season will always be remembered as the year the Canes had a Final Four team beat in the first round and completely let them off the hook.
Question 10: With Lonnie Walker and Bruce Brown likely to leave early, how do you view the 2018-19 Hurricanes’ prospects?
Thomson: It is tough to say, but it does not look good right now. Assuming those two are gone, the style of the team will have to change dramatically, as the best players on the roster will be frontcourt players. Although not mentioned previously by me, Dewan Huell was frustrating this year, only because his talent level is so high that he should be dominating this competition. However, there are understandable reasons this year why that sometimes did not show itself. I do expect him to have a breakout year next year. Miami will also need big minutes from guys like DJ and transfer Miles Wilson, a guy that should be able to help with the wing scoring. If I had to call it right now, I would say this is an average ACC team that finds itself around .500 most of the year, but ultimately misses the tournament since it does not have the cache of other programs.
Parasuraman: See the aforementioned question on JUCO and Grad Transfer players. The Canes do have two “new” players with Deng Gak and Miles Wilson becoming available, and with Gak solidifying the front court, the Canes should be fine up front. But they are also losing their 3 best guard players from this year, and have only Wilson to replace that. If the Canes can’t get ready to play reinforcements, it will just be Lykes, DJ, Wilson, and Amp at 3 positions. That is a disaster waiting to happen, and would max the team out at the NIT level. I don’t really see a unicorn showing up to save this, but the best case scenario is a ready to start PG, and another SF to balance out the roster. With that, the Canes can make the NCAA Tournament for a 4th consecutive year.