Miami Has Arrived: Two Conference Road Wins Show Hurricanes ExperiencePosted by mpatton on January 11th, 2013
Miami is finally here. The past two years the Hurricanes’ roster was better on paper than it ever performed on the court. This year it looks like they’re finally reaching that potential, despite Reggie Johnson‘s current absence from the lineup with a broken thumb. The Hurricanes will also contend with NC State for the ACC runner-up slot come March. Their success isn’t thanks to a flashy offense, which you might expect from a team with Shane Larkin at the helm — rather, it’s thanks to their physical defense.
This is the first year the team has been in the top 50 in defensive efficiency since 2009, and it’s making a big difference. Statistically, the secret is two-fold: The Hurricanes shut down the interior (opponents are only 41% from inside the arc this season), and they don’t commit fouls. Visually, their experience plays a big role. Kenny Kadji and Julian Gamble are very good shot-blockers and their guards are athletic enough to stay in front of people. Experience combined with Jim Larranaga’s system allow the Hurricanes to play physically and avoid fouling. Offense is still a factor in Miami’s success. Miami runs Larkin or Durand Scott through at least one (often two) high ball screens per possession. Against North Carolina the Hurricanes’ offense looked bad most of the game. They shot too many threes, and there was no flow. After the game, Jim Larranaga made it sound like this was at least in part intentional: “When we play a team that pressures us and is going to be trapping the ball-handler, we share the ball and spread them out. And if you get an open three, you have the green light to shoot it.”
But the threes also reflect the primary goal of the offense, which is ball movement. Larranaga probably gives his team a little too much leeway to shoot the deep ball, but the goal is to create open looks, either directly or indirectly. Directly, Miami’s offense leads to numerous open jumpers or lanes to the basket depending on how the opponent defends their screens. Against North Carolina Kadji got two wide open lanes to the basket, while Rion Brown and Trey McKinney-Jones saw plenty of open jumpers. Indirectly, the offense spreads four players around the perimeter, which opened up the paint for Gamble to work inside. One of North Carolina’s biggest issues this year is its size — especially with Brice Johnson on the floor — so not being able to double Gamble in the post really hurt the Tar Heels defensively. Give Gamble a good deal of credit for making himself into a viable option down low. He’s not Reggie Johnson, but he’s a good rebounder and good defender with a great motor. He also showcased a beautiful jump-hook once at North Carolina. If anything, Gamble may be an upgrade over Johnson defensively because he can run the floor more effectively.
But can Miami avoid the offensive lulls that killed them against Florida Gulf Coast? Against the Tar Heels, they survived because North Carolina never made a serious run. From the time Brown hit a three with 8:25 left, no one else scored until Larkin hit a runner with 5:22 left. After PJ Hairston made a three on the ensuing possession, Miami finally made its run as the Tar Heels went silent offensively again until the 1:44 mark. That means for most of the last quarter of the game, North Carolina only hit one shot. Give Miami credit for shutting down North Carolina, but the Hurricanes took their time in closing the game out. The key will be avoiding heat-check threes. With a player like Kadji, there’s no reason to launch contested 24-footers. Also Scott, Larkin and Gamble are able to create offense by drawing contact, penetrating and sheer strength, respectively.
But Thursday’s win at North Carolina should officially put Miami back on people’s radar. Larranaga’s team is now 2-0 in ACC play with two impressive road wins. His team has also already played six true road games (a big part of why its RPI is currently in the top 10), only losing its first one at Florida Gulf Coast without Scott. It’s other two losses (Arizona and Indiana State) came when essentially the whole team was fighting injuries. This team will never be as flashy as NC State, but the Hurricanes are a really tough team with a very impressive resume.