Miami is the outlier of Virginia’s three remaining regular-season basketball games. The Hurricanes have no credible NCAA tournament hopes, no unique cause to inspire their fans. They are the only ACC team to lose to Virginia Tech — twice at that — and they score fewer points than anyone in the league.
Wednesday’s game at John Paul Jones Arena pales especially to the Cavaliers’ closing pair: Saturday’s collision with No. 4 Syracuse, likely for the league’s regular-season title, and the following Sunday’s road test at Maryland, the final ACC home game ever for the Big Ten-bound Terps, sure to draw a hostile and unhinged crowd.
Yet to dismiss Miami (14-13, 5-9) would be unwise. Jim Larranaga established his coaching chops long ago, and he has the Hurricanes playing an effective match-up zone defense. The Hurricanes twice gave Syracuse fits, dealt Florida State a damaging home setback and arrive in Charlottesville having won back-to-back games for the first time since late December, when they bested Loyola of Maryland and LaSalle.
Both wins last week were at home, over struggling Notre Dame and Boston College, but in those games Miami defended well, dominated the glass and shot accurately from beyond the 3-point arc (16-of-31 combined), all components needed to challenge the 12th-ranked Cavaliers (23-5, 14-1).
Larranaga lost the top six players from last season, when the Hurricanes became the first team other than Duke or North Carolina to win the outright ACC regular-season and tournament titles since North Carolina State in 1974. This Virginia squad reminds Larranaga of that 2013 group, which reached the Sweet 16 before losing to Marquette.
“In my mind, in watching them, they’re very similar to the way we were last year in terms of rotation,” he said Monday on the ACC coaches’ media call.
Indeed, like the Cavaliers with Malcolm Brogdon, Joe Harris, London Perrantes and Justin Anderson, those Hurricanes rotated four perimeter players in Shane Larkin, Trey McKinney Jones, Durand Scott and Rion Brown. Virginia’s three-man interior of Mike Tobey, Akil Mitchell and Anthony Gill mirrors Miami’s of Reggie Johnson, Julian Gamble and Kenny Kadji.
The Hurricanes were more athletic and leaned on their point guard, Larkin, for more scoring than the Cavaliers do Perrantes. Miami had seven players average between 6.4 and 14.5 points; Virginia has six between 6.8 and 12.3.
The Hurricanes last season had discouraging non-conference losses to Florida Gulf Coast — little did anyone know then that Dunk City would crash the Sweet 16 — and Indiana State before winning their first 13 ACC games and ascending to No. 2 in the polls. The Cavaliers lost at Green Bay and Tennessee, the latter by 35, and have rebounded to win 11 consecutive conference contests.
Larranaga said Virginia contests “every dribble, every pass, every shot” in the half-court and blocks out as well as any team he’s seen in recent years.
“The way they’re playing defense right now,” he added, “they’re very stingy at everything.”
The Cavaliers rank fourth nationally in defensive efficiency behind Arizona, Saint Louis and Ohio State, according to stats maven Ken Pomeroy’s website. The Hurricanes are among the top 15th percentile in defense at No. 52.
Perhaps most indicative of the pace we’ll see Wednesday: Miami is 351st, dead last, with 58.7 possessions per game. Virginia is 344th. Those numbers are a function of sustained defense and patient offense and, safe to say, portend a taffy-pull of a game.
(The Cavaliers and Hurricanes, by the way, are hardly alone among ACC teams playing slowly. Pittsburgh, Boston College, Syracuse and Clemson also rank below 300th in Pomeroy’s adjusted tempo stats.)
While stars elsewhere are flashier, Harris and Brogdon are “absolutely sensational by just being good basketball players,” Larranaga said. “Those two guys, they’ve just elevated their games and taken their team with them.”
Miami has no such depth. A 6-foot-6 senior guard, Brown is the lone significant holdover from the ACC champions, and it shows. He leads the team in scoring (15.0 points per game) and rebounding (6.3). Senior guard Garrius Adams, who redshirted last season with a knee injury, averages 10.2 points, more than double his 4.5 norm of 2012.
While Miami has an outside chance of earning a first-round ACC tournament bye, Virginia is assured a double-bye into Friday’s quarterfinals and is positioned to win the regular season outright for only the second time — the first was 1981, when Larranaga was a Cavaliers assistant under Terry Holland.
“That’s the test of time,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said of the regular season. “That’s the test of the long haul of 18 games, though it’s not like it was in the past, where everyone plays a perfect (double round-robin schedule).”
Bennett understands the price of success and hopes his players have absorbed his warning.
“You have to know,” he said, “(that) you’re going to get people’s best shot.”
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