Miami’s Jim Larranaga Uses a New Defense to Turn Things AroundPosted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on January 22nd, 2014
It’s often said that the best way to measure a coach is to look at how his teams perform relative to its talent level. Miami head coach Jim Larranaga has always been well-regarded by using that method of evaluation, and not that anyone should be surprised, but Larranaga is doing it again with his 2013-14 Hurricanes. Back in October, the ACC media tabbed Miami as the 12th best team in the conference. After a shaky 5-5 start to the season, the Hurricanes have now won five of their last seven games, including a solid 2-2 league mark in that stretch. In fact, Miami now looks like it is well on its way to topping its preseason ranking, and the Hurricanes now also have legitimate hopes of reaching postseason play. Let’s take a closer look at how Larranaga has managed to turn things around.
It was obvious that this was going to be a rebuilding year after losing five seniors along with ACC Player of the Year Shane Larkin from the greatest Hurricanes team ever. And we also knew that with only four returnees from the 2012-13 ACC champions, it would take them a while to figure out how all the pieces would best fit together. The first 10 games of the season got off to a rocky start with an overtime home loss to St. Francis (NY) and closed with another overtime home loss, this time to league bottom-feeder Virginia Tech. It was at that point when Larranaga decided to try a new defensive game plan in switching to a zone. As a coach who had primarily taught man-to-man defense during his long career, the 64-year old decided to call on a couple of his old coaching buddies for some help. Former Pittsburgh head coach Ralph Willard and Syracuse assistant Bernie Fine each spent a day teaching the details of playing a match-up zone to the Miami coaching staff.
After losing 87 percent of his scoring from last season, Larranaga figured that this season’s team would struggle to score points, and he was right. Nationally, the Hurricanes rank a miserable 255th in effective field goal percentage and 152nd in overall adjusted offensive efficiency, and not much offensive improvement should be expected with this roster. Knowing that, Larranaga wisely chose to focus on what this group can do well — using their length and collective willingness to play defense to his advantage. Not only does the match-up zone maximize his available talents, but it also accomplishes a twin goal of limiting possessions. Currently, Miami ranks as the slowest team in the country with an average of 59.6 possessions per game. This slower pace has helped Miami hang with more dynamic scoring teams. For example, when most pundits expected the Hurricanes to get blown out at Syracuse, Miami actually led most of the way before falling by five points in a snail-like 49-possession game. After that, the Hurricanes held North Carolina to 30.8 percent shooting in a rare Miami win in Chapel Hill, again controlling the tempo throughout.
Since then, Miami has split a pair of games, losing at home to Florida State by 10 and winning on the road versus Georgia Tech. That already gives the Hurricanes two ACC road wins, which is not too bad when you consider that Duke and North Carolina are a combined 0-5 in road conference games. After seven games of playing the new match-up zone, Miami has found something to hang its hat on with a defense that has only allowed 52.6 points per game since the switch. This week presents a great opportunity for Larranaga’s squad to take another big step forward. Duke comes to Coral Gables tonight (7:30 ET – ESPN2) and on Saturday, the Hurricanes will have another crack at undefeated Syracuse, this time on Miami’s home court. While Larranaga’s team will be the underdog in both games, Ken Pomeroy’s score predictor sees both games close, with Duke favored by three points and Syracuse by only five. Even a split of these games could be enough to propel Miami into the upper half of the league, considerably higher than they would have been without the adaptability of its head coach, a man who has again proven that he knows how to get the best out of his team regardless of personnel.