January 01, 2016

To Jim Larranaga, Miami's final nonconference game heading into ACC play being competitive was just what his team needed.

Mike Hopkins found out his team's ACC opener was a little more than it could handle.

A one-point loss from being undefeated, the 13th-ranked Hurricanes have still been rather impressive heading into Saturday's visit from an Orange team that hasn't lost its first two conference games in 16 years.

Miami shook off the disappointment of missing the NCAA Tournament last season and reached the NIT final, and though it came into this one with a similar roster, the expectations were greater in Larranaga's fifth season.

The Hurricanes (11-1) have so far been exceeding them. Sixth in the others receiving votes portion of the AP Top 25 in the preseason, Miami finds itself on the cusp of the top 10 and could get there with a win over the Orange (10-4).

Larranaga thinks his team, which lost to Northeastern at the buzzer Nov. 27 and has beaten Utah and Butler, will be better prepared for Syracuse after getting a solid test to close its nonconference slate. The Hurricanes trailed Princeton by seven midway through the second half Tuesday before finishing on a 31-12 run for a 76-64 victory.

''Honestly, I thought that was exactly what the doctor ordered,'' Larranaga said. ''We needed a challenge. We needed a gut check, someone to really test us. We needed to be behind and have to come back.''

Syracuse was the team that gave up a somewhat sizable lead earlier this week. The Orange were up eight on Pittsburgh with 14 minutes left Wednesday, but missed 11 of their final 15 shots and committed four turnovers in the final two minutes of a 72-61 loss.

"That last five minutes, they gave it to us," interim coach Hopkins said. " ... But we're getting better. I felt really good for 35 minutes. I had heartburn for the last five."

The Panthers outrebounded Syracuse 43-25, including 19 offensive boards. Pitt held a 22-2 edge in second-chance points.

Syracuse's opponents are rebounding 33.9 percent of their misses, putting the Orange 320th in that category in what Hopkins call his team's "Achilles heel."

Syracuse has a minus-2.2 rebound differential overall while Miami's is plus-8.0, though the Hurricanes don't often find themselves requiring extra possessions. That's because they're among the nation's top 10 in field-goal percentage (51.0) and just outside it from beyond the arc (41.2).

Larranaga was surprised that Princeton, which primarily plays a zone, used so much man-to-man defense on the Hurricanes early. There probably won't be any similar adjustments from Syracuse's staple 2-3 zone.

Ivan Cruz Uceda (56.1 percent) and Sheldon McClellan (47.5) give Miami two 3-point threats, while the Orange have one they'd like to see fire away more. Freshman Tyler Lydon is hitting 45.9 percent from 3, but only attempting 2.6 per game.

"We want him to shoot," Hopkins said. "If you can see me, I probably pull four back muscles and a shoulder muscle every time he doesn't because he is such a good shooter."

Miami has lost two heartbreakers in its last two ACC openers, which went a combined three overtimes - and had last season's double-OT defeat to Virginia gone differently, the Hurricanes likely would have made the NCAAs.

Syracuse is trying to avoid its first 0-2 start in conference play since 1998-99, when it and the Hurricanes were in the Big East.

Miami hasn't beaten the Orange at home since 1996, losing the last five, but it did win last season's lone meeting 66-62 at the Carrier Dome despite McClellan and Angel Rodriguez shooting a combined 5 for 20.

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