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Five to Watch: Miami tries to become 2-sport school under Jim Larrañaga

Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire

In college athletics, there tends to be a dividing line between basketball schools and football schools that is essentially defined by what matters at each university.

Duke, Kansas, and Kentucky all stand on the basketball side of the metaphorical coin, while its flip side is occupied by Alabama, Auburn, and Georgia, where occasional success on the hardwood hasn’t been enough to override an emphasis on the pigskin.

Recently, though, more programs have been engaged in an impressive balancing act — teetering on the edge of the coin — in which both sports are nationally relevant. Many universities, including Florida, Louisville, and Michigan State, have all enjoyed two-sport success in recent memory. Now, a new school is trying to join the fray.

In 2011, the Miami Hurricanes used the prestige of coaching in the Atlantic Coast Conference to lure head coach Jim Larrañaga away from George Mason. Larrañaga, then 61, viewed the opportunity as a capstone to a coaching career that had previously only involved long-tenured stops at Bowling Green and Mason. After a decade of uninspired performances in Coral Gables, the now 67-year-old coach has turned the Hurricanes into a viable ACC competitor, posting a 54-34 regular season conference record over that span and making two Sweet 16 appearances, marking the deepest NCAA Tournament runs in program history.

Miami’s two best seasons under Larrañaga have been characterized by quality play from the point guard position, first by Shane Larkin in 2012-’13 and then by Angel Rodriguez in 2015-’16. Rodriguez, a transfer from Kansas State, piloted the Hurricanes to a top-15 ranking in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom, last season. After Rodriguez’s graduation last May, Larrañaga will turn the reins over to rising junior Ja’Quan Newton.

20 February 2016: Miami's Ja'Quan Newton. The University of North Carolina Tar Heels hosted the University of Miami Hurricanes at the Dean E. Smith Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in a 2015-16 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball game. UNC won the game 96-71. (Photograph by Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon Sportswire)

Ja’Quan Newton of Miami (Photograph by Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon Sportswire)

Newton, a former top-50 recruit out of Philadelphia, posted solid numbers in a backup role last season, averaging 10.5 points and 2.5 assists in 22.7 minutes per game. His per-40-minutes statistics (18.4 points and 4.3 assists) suggest that the 6-foot-3 guard may prove to be an even more effective offensive player than Rodriguez was during his senior campaign.

Newton is at his best going to the basket. Just 11.4 percent of his field goal attempts came behind the three-point arc as a sophomore, according to hoop-math. Although Newton settles frequently in the mid-range area of the court, his ability to attack off the bounce proved fruitful. He drew 6.2 fouls per 40 minutes last season, the 106th best mark in the country. The soon-to-be 21-year-old is also a solid distributor, posting an assist rate above 20 percent.

Although the Hurricanes lost a significant amount of talent with Rodriguez, Sheldon McClellan, and Tonye Jekiri departing, there are still solid returnees for Newton to connect with on the court. Senior Davon Reed figures to be a go-to scoring option on the wing. The 6-foot-6 guard finished third on the team in scoring last season behind Rodriguez and McClellan. His ability to knock down the deep ball (38.3 percent on 4.8 attempts per 40 minutes) should fit with the three-point-averse Newton.

Inside the arc, Kamari Murphy returns to the fold. The 6-foot-8 rising senior likely won’t be featured on the offensive end of the floor, but his defensive abilities will once again prove important. At 220 pounds, Murphy has the strength to compete with most power forwards on the block, but his athleticism also gives him the ability to guard along the perimeter. In an era of increasingly positionless basketball, Murphy’s versatility should shine.

Newton, Reed and Murphy will be joined by a pair of potential impact freshmen. Combo guard Bruce Brown, a four-star recruit, will likely slot into the third guard spot. He’s already physically mature and skilled enough to make an impact on the defensive end, but will be a work in process on offense, according to his head coach.

The other freshman is 6-foot-10 forward Dewan Huell, who seems destined to eventually join Murphy down low. Huell, a McDonald’s All-American as a senior, is still developing the strength necessary to do battle against older college players, but is the type of “tools” prospect coaches can mold into something special.

The Hurricanes may not be as good as they were last season — they simply lack some of the experience that made them a three-seed in the NCAA Tournament — but the talent is there for Miami to make plenty of noise in a highly competitive ACC environment that features a number of top 25 squads. At the helm will be Larrañaga, entering his sixth season in Coral Gables and trying to solidify “The U” as one of the rare two-sport schools in college athletics.

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