Miami emerging as one of November’s best teams and an ACC contender
In the days after the 2015 NCAA tournament field was revealed, Jim Larrañaga probably wished his team had performed better in November and December. It would have been hard to fault the Miami coach for wondering whether even one more nonconference win could have changed the selection committee’s mind. The Hurricanes had a massive win at Duke to their name, but not much else to distinguish their résumé. Accordingly, Miami was left on the outside looking in, and bracketologists dubbed it one of the biggest “snubs.”
It doesn’t seem Larrañaga will need to sweat out selection Sunday in 2016, because Miami already looks like a safe bet to make the field. The Hurricanes beat No. 22 Butler on Sunday night, 85–75, to win the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, continuing an impressive run in the first month of the season. A day after ACC frontrunner North Carolina was stunned at Northern Iowa and less than a week after conference rival Duke lost to Kentucky in the Champions Classic, another ACC program, Miami is building its case as a legit contender.
The Hurricanes are now 5–0 with wins over two teams ranked in the top 40 of SI.com’s projections. How is Miami doing it? Well, it’s making shots. In their two most recent wins, over Utah and Butler, the Hurricanes knocked down 18 of their 37 (48.6%) three-point attempts and rung up 1.34 and 1.27 points per possession, respectively. Redshirt senior guards Sheldon McClellan and Angel Rodriguez totaled 65 points in the two wins, and senior big man Tonye Jekiri has complemented them by scoring in the paint (32 points combined) and crashing the boards (24).
On Sunday, Miami overwhelmed the Bulldogs by preventing easy looks in the half court, pressuring the ball and scoring off turnovers. The Hurricanes jumped on Butler early and held a 13-point lead at half time after limiting the Bulldogs to 0.84 points per possession. Star Butler guard Kellen Dunham made some timely shots and scored 20 points in the second half to keep the Bulldogs in it down the stretch, but Miami ultimately made enough free throws to hang on for a victory that could pay huge dividends in March.
The Hurricanes should keep winning, too. Ken Pomeroy gives them at least a 79% chance of taking each of their next nine games, and if it can survive a Dec. 1 trip to Nebraska, Miami could open ACC play against Syracuse on Jan. 2 with a perfect record. The Hurricanes already have cleared their biggest hurdles in nonconference play, so they can enter the conference season with less pressure to score signature wins. But based on the way it has performed so far, Miami should be able to hang with with the ACC’s top teams.
The Tar Heels—which, to be fair, are without their best player (Marcus Paige)—already lost to a Missouri Valley Conference program. Duke rebounded from its defeat to the Wildcats with wins over Georgetown and VCU at the 2K Classic but needs scorers to emerge in support of budding sophomore star Grayson Allen. And Virginia surrendered 73 points in a loss at George Washington earlier this month. SI.com projected those three squads to finish atop the ACC, but each has already shown vulnerability. If Miami is for real, beating those programs in January and February will prove it.
Perhaps it’s too soon to buy into the Hurricanes, given they’ve played only two games against strong competition (Mississippi State has a long way to go). Yet it’s hard not to be impressed by what they’ve accomplished so far. At the very least, given last season’s tourney miss, one can appreciate the importance of their early success and look forward to the ACC being more competitive. Between the wins over top-25 teams and a pair of huge recruiting additions, it’s been a very good week for Miami basketball.