Before boarding a flight for Puerto Rico a few days ago, Miami coach Jim Larranaga solidified his program’s future by securing commitments from a pair of 2016 Rivals top 50 prospects.
Then the Hurricanes arrived at the Puerto Rico Tip-Off and proved their current team is worthy of excitement too.
They annihilated Mississippi State by 26 points in Thursday’s opening round. They demolished 16th-ranked Utah by 24 in Friday semifinals. They roared to a 19-point first-half lead over 22nd-ranked Butler in Sunday’s championship game before withstanding a late surge from the Bulldogs and emerging with an 85-75 victory.
Three emphatic wins in Puerto Rico suggest that Miami may have been one of the nation’s most underrated teams entering the new season. Not only have the unbeaten Hurricanes accomplished enough to deserve a spot in the AP Top 25 when it’s released anew Monday morning, it would also be a travesty if they don’t debut somewhere in the top 15.
It shouldn’t be a total surprise that Miami is off to such a strong start because the Hurricanes return the core of a 25-win NIT team that last year showed glimpses of immense potential. At its best, Miami walloped Duke in Durham last season and also nearly upset ACC champion Virginia. At their worst, the Hurricanes endured surprising home losses to Georgia Tech by 20 and to Eastern Kentucky by 28.
Eliminating that inconsistency is a possibility this season if Miami neither relies too heavily on its haphazard 3-point shooting nor on senior point guard Angel Rodriguez. When Rodriguez involved his supporting cast and they responded by making baskets, Miami was at its best last season. When Rodriguez hunted his own shot and did too much himself, his turnovers rose, his shooting percent plummeted and the Hurricanes became much more vulnerable.
Balanced, efficient offense actually became a strength for Miami in Puerto Rico. The Hurricanes have risen to second nationally in points per possession because they’re two deep at every possession and they can score in so many different ways.
They’re long, athletic and active enough defensively to force turnovers with smothering ball pressure and parlay them into easy transition baskets. They have a 7-foot center in Tonye Jekiri who can alter shots and rebound at one end yet post-up and score at the other. And they have an array of perimeter weapons highlighted by the aforementioned Rodriguez, sharpshooter Davon Reed and high-scoring wing Sheldon McClellan.
It was Miami’s disruptive defense that caused Butler the most problems during a first half in which the typically mistake-free Bulldogs committed nine turnovers and allowed the Hurricanes to convert many of them into fast-break opportunities. Butler did a better job in the second half taking care of the ball, freeing Kellen Dunham for jump shots and attacking the offensive glass for second-chance points, but every time the Bulldogs would mount a charge, Miami had an answer.
When a Dunham 3-pointer trimmed the deficit to eight with nine minutes to play, Je’Quan Newton responded with a critical jumper. When a pair of Kelan Martin free throws pulled Butler within seven a couple minutes later, Rodriguez and Reed buried back-to-back threes. And when the Bulldogs surged to within four on yet another Dunham deep ball, the Hurricanes responded once more by holding Butler without a field goal over the game’s final three-plus minutes.
The challenge over the next six weeks for Miami will be maintaining the level of intensity it showed in Puerto Rico. The Hurricanes have a chance to enter ACC play with an impressive record considering their toughest remaining non-league home game is against retooling Florida and their lone road games are against La Salle and Nebraska.
Three years ago, a veteran-laden Miami team won 29 games, captured the ACC regular season title and advanced to the Sweet 16.
It’s far too early to suggest this year’s team is capable of similar exploits, but the Hurricanes are certainly off to an encouraging start.
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