December 01, 2014

A pair of star transfers have been the catalysts in an efficient offense that has helped Miami jump out to its best start in Jim Larranaga's four seasons as coach.

Continuing that run may come down to how well it can defend against an Illinois team that has been even better offensively.

The 15th-ranked Hurricanes host the No. 24 Fighting Illini in a battle of unbeatens in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Tuesday night.

Miami (7-0) hasn't won its first eight since 2009-10, two years before Larranaga left George Mason to take over in Coral Gables. The Hurricanes posted a disappointing 17-16 mark last season, but Texas transfer Sheldon McClellan and former Kansas State guard Angel Rodriguez have them looking capable of competing in the loaded ACC in 2014-15.

McClellan's 60.3 field-goal percentage ranks sixth in the nation among guards, and he's averaging a team-best 16.7 points after hitting all six shots while scoring 17 in Friday's 87-75 win over South Alabama.

Rodriguez had only seven but played limited minutes as the Hurricanes jumped out to a 23-0 lead. He's averaging 14.9 points, including a 24-point effort in a win at then-No. 8 Florida on Nov. 17.

Miami ranks fourth in the nation in 3-point percentage at 45.7 and has committed fewer than 10 turnovers three times, but it gave up 54 second-half points in its last contest and forced only six turnovers in 40 minutes.

The Hurricanes are barely in the nation's top 300 in creating turnovers, forcing just 11.9 per game.

''We got off to a terrific start against (South Alabama),'' Larranaga said. ''We didn't seem to have the same focus in the second half that we did in the first half, especially on the defensive end of the floor. They outhustled us. We can't afford that.''

That especially will be true against Illinois (6-0), which is tied for second in the nation in fewest turnovers per game at 8.8. It also ranks third with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.85.

That efficiency has helped the Illini average 90.0 points, which is tied for fifth in the nation. They've also been solid on the defensive end and overcame a 39-percent shooting effort in Friday's 62-54 victory over Baylor to win the Las Vegas Invitational.

Illinois held the Bears to 33.3 percent from the floor and forced 15 turnovers. It shot 46 percent in the second half compared to 32 percent in the first 20 minutes.

''We took this game like it was a Big Ten game,'' said Rayvonte Rice, who had 38 points and eight steals in the Illini's two games in Vegas to earn tournament MVP honors. ''We knew the score would be low.

"We're a defensive team. It all starts with defense.''

Illini opponents are shooting 36.3 percent and turning it over an average of 16.7 times. Coach John Groce has been impressed with how his squad has been able to win with solid efforts at both ends.

''We know the offensive side is sexy, but our defense won it for us,'' Groce said. ''You have to win different ways in different styles. We took care of the ball. We moved the ball well.''

Illinois nearly won a defensive battle in its last meeting with Miami, but the seventh-seeded Illini fell to the second-seeded Hurricanes 63-59 in the 2013 NCAA tournament.

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