Miami a No. 1 seed? Matchup with UNC is key

They came off an emotional win over Florida State. North Carolina was just around the corner. A 9 p.m. start. They played most of the first half without their best player – Sheldon McClellan – and all of the game without a player many feel is the country’s best sixth man – Ja’Quan Newton.

The Miami Hurricanes trailed by one point at halftime Wednesday night. They won by 16, 65-49.

Yes, the past few games haven’t been pretty but Hurricanes’ fans will gladly take winning ugly.
And with Penn State beating No. 4 Iowa and Texas Tech topping No. 3 Oklahoma on the same night the Hurricanes won, there are few givens. And with Duke beating the Tar Heels, Saturday’s game is for first place in the ACC.

“Carolina is a unique place,” Miami coach Jim Larranaga said. “The Dean Dome is special, 23,000 fans yelling, everyone wearing power blue. “But it is a game.”

It is and it isn’t.

The Hurricanes are way beyond “bubbledom”. They have one of the best RPIs in the country, they’ve been solid throughout the year and they’ve beaten Duke, Utah and Notre Dame, teams that likely will be top-five seeds in the NCAA Tournament.

“We know what we’re chasing, we want to win,” forward Kamari Murphy said.

If they’re chasing a No. 1 seed, then Saturday is a must win. Miami’s best road win was Sunday at Florida State, a bubble team. In their toughest games away from home, the Hurricanes lost to Virginia and Clemson, another bubble team. They are 5-3 in true road games.

If the Hurricanes win Saturday and then take two of three against Virginia, Louisville and Notre Dame and take the ACC postseason title, a No. 1 seed is well within reach. Unlike last year, everybody this season has at least three losses. Nobody is running away with those coveted No. 1s. In Friday’s RPI, the Nos. 2-5 teams were Villanova, Oregon, Oklahoma and Xavier.

Imagine those four being on the top line.

If Newton can go Saturday, putting Miami at full strength, it’ll be one of those, what-have-we-learned-about-this team contests.

But we have learned a lot so far in the past couple of weeks. Miami has been resourceful. Topping Pittsburgh 65-63 on a tip in by point guard Angel Rodriguez. Edging FSU 67-65 despite not making a field goal for the final 4:23. Beating Virginia Tech 65-49 despite playing without Newton (medical condition) and only getting 24 minutes from Sheldon McClellan because of first-half foul trouble.

After settling for 3-pointers in the first half, Miami attacked in the second half and shot 68 percent. Trailing 22-21 at halftime, the Hurricanes went on a 14-2 run to start the second half. “We put the ball inside and got to the foul line,” Larranaga said. “In the second half, we immediately did it and got control of the lead.”

Executing the game plan is an area Larranaga said has been a strength this season for the most part.
Where he’s seen the most growth the past couple of weeks is in defense and rebounding, an area that’ll be severely tested by the Tar Heels and their athleticism.

In comparing this year’s Miami team to last year’s, Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams said, “More experienced. … They have refined niches because of that experience.” Williams was at Marquette when it ended one of the best seasons in Miami history in a 2013 regional semifinal.

Williams said the Hurricanes not quite as big and less reliant on ball screens than they have been in the past, which means this team is less predictable, less reliant on one person. Miami never has been to regional final, much less a Final Four. Saturday’s game – while not a tell all on the Hurricanes – will give us a decent idea if they can break through to that barrier this season.