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Why did the Hurricanes slip from Final Four to under .500? Injuries, depth and taking winning for granted, Larrañaga says

CORAL GABLES — Instead of getting on a bus to go to the airport and fly to an NCAA Tournament destination, Miami men’s basketball coach Jim Larrañaga sat at a desk at the Watsco Center, trying to explain what went wrong with the Hurricanes’ season.

Just a year after reaching the program’s first Final Four, Miami finished the season under .500 and 14th in the ACC, a large departure from expectations at the start of the season.

Larrañaga’s diagnosis on Monday was similar to what he has said throughout Miami’s ACC schedule: injuries and their ramifications doomed the 2023-24 campaign.

“I’ve said this way too many times but I think when we were 100 percent healthy, we were a very good basketball team,” Larrañaga said. “It’s hard enough to be successful missing one of your key players, but it’s almost impossible to be successful when you have a different guy injured almost every game, and you can’t develop the kind of chemistry and bond. That’s the first thing: the injuries impacted us in a huge way.

“Second, I thought our bench players were very inexperienced. Younger guys that hadn’t really been through the wars and weren’t able to help us overcome those injuries. Had the bench been a little bit more mature, a little older guys like last year’s Final Four team, where we had Anthony Walker and Harlond Beverly and even Bensley Joseph were experienced players and had been in the battles before. Then maybe you can make up for a key starter being out. But when you look at the injuries to Nijel Pack and then to Wooga Poplar and then Norchad (Omier) misses a game and then Matt Cleveland misses several games and then Kyshawn (George) misses a game. When there’s no continuity in practice and preparation, you lose a lot of close games, and we did.”

Larrañaga added that he thought his players had assumed winning and reaching the NCAA Tournament again was a given.

“I do think our players assumed (we would make the tournament),” Larrañaga said. “I think they took winning for granted. I think if you look at the other three teams that were in the Final Four, Connecticut’s a one seed, San Diego State’s a five seed and FAU is an eight seed. We belong in there. But the issues we’ve had … (are) things I can’t control. When a kid sprains an ankle, he sprains his ankle. How long it takes him to recover from that, I have no control over.”

The Hurricanes will look significantly different next season. Larrañaga said five players have already told them they do not plan to return to UM next season, either leaving for the professional ranks or through the transfer portal. Freshman center Michael Nwoko told the South Florida Sun Sentinel he will enter the transfer portal. Joseph, a junior, and sophomores A.J. Casey and Christian Watson have also reportedly entered the portal. Omier and Pack both tested the pro waters last year before opting to return to UM, and they could do the same this offseason.

The roster turnover starts with the incoming freshmen, who are highly touted. Five-star guard Jalil Bethea, a McDonald’s All-American, highlights the Hurricanes’ incoming recruiting class. He will arrive along with four-star guard Austin Swartz and four-star forward Isaiah Johnson-Arigu.

The Hurricanes will also be active in the transfer portal. Larrañaga said they will definitely be targeting big men in addition to any other roster holes that appear.

“During this next month, (we will) just try to sign for our needs,” Larrañaga said. “So we need a guard, we’ve got to try to sign a guard. If we need bigs — which we obviously do — we just don’t have very many big guys. It’s been one of the things we were able to overcome for two years in a row by staying healthy. This year, with all the injuries, we just weren’t.”