What’s the fastest way to get a strictly football school to buy into a basketball program? How about showing up in a down year for the football team, starting 7-0 in one of the best conferences in college basketball, and playing with such a pace that fans think they are watching a tennis match with the way their necks are turning; could that work? You could just ask the Miami Hurricanes and they’d probably tell you that that formula is working just fine.
The #14 Hurricanes let the Virginia Tech Hokies stay close in Blacksburg last night, but in the end, set themselves apart en route to a 73-64 road win. Guard Shane Larkin doubled his season scoring average with a 25 point performance that paced Miami offensively. Combo forward Kenny Kadji added 18 of his own and Trey Mckinney Jones had 12, and while the Canes couldn’t stop Hokie forward Erick Green from pouring in 30 of his own, they kept his teammates in check.
Aside from the occasional Reggie Johnson outburst and Jack McClinton‘s past dominance in NCAA 3-point contests, Coral Gables has been the farthest thing from a college basketball destination in recent years. Known for football prowess and biting the ankles of the ACC elite on the hardwood, Jim Larranaga has transformed this program into a top 25 team that has yet to lose in one of the nation’s top basketball conferences. They are also boasting a 16-3 overall record, with non-conference losses to then #4 Arizona, Florida Gulf Coast, and Indiana State. Miami has evolved into a team that wouldn’t lose those games again (Arizona fan exits out of this article), yet they are just slight bumps that have disappeared from a now spotless rearview mirror.
Their quality wins are, out of conference, then #13 Michigan State, and in conference, then #1 Duke and North Carolina. The Canes didn’t let the Blue Devils even sniff the smell of supremacy in their second run as the nation’s top dog, when they beat them 90-63 in front of a home crowd on January 23.
So what has gotten into the program? One that by looking through history, is not supposed to be playing at such a high level. Above all else, it is Miami’s ability to create turnovers and turn them into points which is producing victories. Shane Larkin is averaging 2.2 steals a game and Durand Scott is averaging 1.8. Additionally, Julian Gamble and Reggie Johnson are each averaging 1.8 blocks (although Johnson has battled injuries and has a smaller sample size), while Kadji is averaging 1.5. Both blocks and steals are directly turning into easy points, as Miami is proving that they can dictate the tempo of any game on the defensive end by forcing opponents to make quick, and often poor decisions.
Offensively, Larranaga starts three guards (Larkin, Scott, McKinney Jones), which has allowed the Canes to take care of the ball averaging only 11 turnovers per game. In past years, poor guard play has plagued Miami offensively and it is only right that an improved back court is propelling them this season. Their biggest strength is that the makeup of their lineup is incredibly hard to matchup with. They start three guards and two combo forwards in Kadji and Gamble, which forces small forwards to have to keep up with a faster Scott or McKinney Jones who each stand at 6’5”.
Also, post presence Reggie Johnson has only played in 10 games and is slowly working his way back into the rotation off of the bench. When he has played, Johnson has averaged 9 points and 9 rebounds a game, and will be able to provide a scoring punch for them when he is able to return to top form. Last season, Johnson was the saving grace for a team that struggled offensively and this season he has yet to even get going. Against Virginia Tech Wednesday he played 22 minutes and had 4 points with 10 rebounds. The healthier he gets, the more lethal this offense becomes in the half court which will give them a whole new dimension to rely on.
The offensive and defensive shortcomings for this team are evident. On defense, they are going to have trouble stopping wing scorers, as Virginia Tech’s Erick Green showed with his 30 point performance. As aforementioned, Scott and McKinney Jones are both only 6’5”, and while that makes them a tough cover, it also makes it hard for them to halt the production of big body wings (although Green is only 6’3”). On offense, their half court can be stagnant but that will improve as Johnson continues to become a bigger, healthier part of the rotation.
Immediate Future: Miami continues to climb the national rankings and if they can knock off #19 N.C. State in Raleigh this weekend they could make a push into the top ten. They will also travel to Duke on March 2 to prove that they can knock off a top conference opponent outside of their own building. In the foreseeable future, Miami is a serious contender in the ACC and looks to be a team that could grab a top-5 regional seed in the Big Dance.
Looking Farther Ahead: The ACC adds Syracuse, Pitt and possibly Louisville for both football and basketball next season, and many were saying that Miami should jump ship and make a move to another major conference like Maryland. Yet they are currently proving that the growing basketball reputation of the ACC is not something they have to necessarily run away from. They are also giving us another reason to believe that come the 2013-14 season, the ACC could be the nation’s best college basketball conference once again.