It's game day, and this is kind of a big one. It looks that way now, anyway, with NC State and Miami both sitting in bubble territory. Perhaps in March we will all laugh about this as we take our luxurious six-seed out for a spin with the top down.
I traded emails with Jerry Steinberg this week to get some perspective on the up-and-down Hurricanes, who've lost a nailbiter to UVA and been blown out by Eastern Kentucky on the same floor. I answered some questions for Jerry as well, and those will be up at State of The U.
BTP: When Miami has lost games this year, what's hurt them the most, shooting aside? Anything in particular that was a common theme in those losses?
Jerry: Miami started out the year 8-0 and was ranked as high as #15 in the country. By Head Coach Jim Larranaga's admission the team "relaxed" at that point and seemed to lose focus. Particularly disturbing during the rough stretch that followed and included losses to Green Bay and Eastern Kentucky, was the fact UM was not playing with the kind of intensity they needed to be successful. This manifested itself in not getting back in transition, and getting beat on the glass. The common theme in essence is effort. When the Hurricanes are playing with maximum effort, they can compete with anyone. When they are not, anyone can beat them.
BTP: Does it feel like Miami turned a corner once conference play got started, maybe put some of their December issues behind them?
Jerry: It absolutely does. The hot and cold shooting you referenced is still there. But they are really defending well for the most part night in and night out. In their first conference game of the season, they fell behind 38-20 to UVA, only to storm back and force a double OT classic. The second half of that game seemed to be the moment where the team realized what type of play was needed to compete not only with the big boys, but anyone. This is a guard heavy, talented team, but they are not good enough to just show up and win. They throttled Duke at Cameron, and sans some red hot second half shooting by the Irish they could have very easily walked away with the win in South Bend. The team very much appears to be maturing and improving each time out.
BTP: Outside of Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan, which player is most important to Miami on a night-to-night basis?
Jerry: Excellent question. All around it is easily Tonye Jekiri. Jekiri is the most improved big man in the country outside of Rakeem Christmas. He currently leads the ACC in rebounding and has been an absolute rock down low for the 'Canes. Outside of Jekiri, and in terms of scoring, I wish I could say there was a clear #3. Earlier in the season it was Manu Lecomte. Lecomte is still the team's best outside shooter. But in the ACC the minutes aren't always there for him, as he is a 5'11 PG forced to play the 2 when Angel Rodriguez is in the game. Two sub 6 foot guards in the game at the same time doesn't work again teams with big back courts.
Against Illinois it was freshman Deandre Burnett who got hot. Burnett is a pure scorer, but still needs to work on other aspects of his game. Lately another freshman, JaQuan Newton, has really stepped up. Newton is a Philly kid who plays with a definite swag. At 6'3 he has PG skills, but also can score in a variety of ways, and seems to have very little trouble getting in the lane. This kid is a player to really watch, not only against the Pack, but for the remainder of the season.
BTP: Do you think Angel Rodriguez's workload is too high? He's capable of carrying the Canes at times but his shooting inside the arc this year has been abysmal. As often as he shoots the ball, it's led to some ugly nights. Would you handle his role differently?
Jerry: Angel Rodriguez is a definite conundrum. Without him, Miami has no shot at Florida, and probably doesn't beat Duke. In UM's losses however, the numbers are hard to ignore. I have given this much thought and after watching the Hurricanes' play closely, I have come to the conclusion that for NOW his workload is what it needs to be. McClellan and Burnett are talented scorers, but too often willing to defer. Rodriguez sometimes appears to be the only alpha dog on the floor, and as a result feels the need to make plays. I'd definitely like to see him pass more than shoot. But he is the team's most clutch player and its leader, so it is hard to ask him to take fewer shots. As Newton emerges and McClellan, Burnett and others recognize their abilities a little more, his load should decrease naturally. I hope.
BTP: Way to beat the hell out of Duke in Durham, you guys. I don't have a question here, just wanted to let you know how much I appreciated that.
Jerry: Hey, thanks for that. Way to give the 'Canes the blueprint the game before. Seriously, good luck Thursday night and the remainder of the season.