It’s been about ten years since the University of Miami’s football program was a relevant national power, but Miami basketball is playing well right now and has a chance to make a significant statement on the national stage tonight when they host Duke (7 PM ET, ESPN). The Hurricanes are unbeaten in ACC play and, in spite of them being ranked #24 while the Dookies are #1, a victory here marks Miami as the team to beat in the ACC the rest of the way. Are the ‘Canes up to it, and can this be a legitimate Final Four contender? Let’s take a closer look at Miami basketball.
To begin with this, team is exceptionally well-balanced. There’s no facet of the game they don’t do well in. Frankly, I think the pertinent question is why they didn’t step up more last season when a push to reach the NCAA Tournament came up short. It starts up front, with three big post players. The best of the group is 6’11” senior Kenny Kadji, and not far behind is 6’10” Reggie Johnson. In a world in college basketball where most teams struggle to find one really good post presence, Miami has two, and they bring another credible player off the bench in 6’10” Julian Gamble. If you get these guys playing aggressively, looking for the ball, and hitting the glass, there aren’t many teams in the country that can really match up.
It doesn’t just end with good post presence, Miami is also a team that excels in the backcourt as well. To the contrary, there are no weaknesses here either. Sophomore guard Shane Larkin—the son of Hall of Fame shortstop and ESPN baseball analyst Barry Larkin—is a lights-out three-point shooter and quality passer. Two seniors, Durand Scott and Trey McKinney-Jones each score in double figures, and they both provide some extra rebounding help, crashing from the wings. Scott and McKinney-Jones both go 6’5”, so when you put it all together, this is a big team at each position of play.
All this talent was on hand for Miami last year and they settled for the NIT. Then they lost an early season game to Florida Gulf Coast. Subsequent losses to Arizona and Indiana State weren’t bad—the Sycamores are good this year and the game with Miami went to overtime—and it certainly seemed like nothing had changed. It appeared that Miami would be another big tease.
But ACC play has seen them turn the corner. The ‘Canes played great defense and hit the boards in a road win over Georgia Tech, and reserve guard Rion Brown scored 22 points, showing they could get points “off the grid”, so to speak, if their key players had rough shooting nights. Then Miami went to Chapel Hill and beat North Carolina. This time it was good three-point shooting and Kadji really stepped up with an 18 points/9 rebounds effort, including a couple treys. It was McKinney-Jones’ turn to be the leader in a tough 54-47 win over a pretty good Maryland team, as he posted a 12 points/8 rebounds/7 assists line. Then this past weekend, Miami showed they could win an ugly road game—an absolute necessity to prove if you intend to win a conference championship—by edging Boston College 60-59.
The wins over North Carolina and Maryland at least tell us that Miami is ready to elevate above other challengers in the ACC and solidify itself as a solid NCAA Tournament team. That makes for a good year, but I believe they have the talent to do more. The lingering question remains whether they’ll put it together against teams at the highest level, and a big test of that comes tonight when the Blue Devils come to Coral Gables.
If Miami is on the rise, someone has to be on the way down, and while the ACC race is fairly balanced, the team that’s perhaps most disappointing is Virginia. The Cavs are 12-5, and in the current NCAA Tournament projections by Joe Lunardi at ESPN.com, Virginia not only isn’t in the field, they’re not one of the first eight teams to miss. While Lunardi’s word might not be Gospel truth, he does use the same methodology of the committee, his projections are credible and we can at least use them as a basis for where a team stands relative to the rest of college basketball. Given Lunardi’s assessment though, Virginia can not feel good about where it stands.
One of the biggest reasons for Virgina’s struggles is that there’s not enough depth to the Cavalier attack right now. Akil Mitchell provides scoring and rebounding from the forward position and Joe Harris is a quality guard, but apart from this duo, there’s not enough extra help. I would single out point guard Jontel Evans as the one who needs to step up his game, both running the offense and kicking in some point production himself. Virginia has road losses to mediocre teams in Clemson and Wake Forest. There’s time to recover and put themselves in good NCAA position, but Tony Bennett’s team needs to start winning now.