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CanesHoops Best Defense may be its Potent Offense

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With competitive games just over a month away, the college basketball practice opened up this past weekend, and the Miami Hurricanes took the court focused on Coach Jim Larrañaga's key to every season - defense. Miami assistant coaches Chris Caputo and Michael Huger took time out of their busy schedules to give us a closer look at what is almost a brand-new team for a second straight year.

With just three players who saw court time last year returning, and one of them out with and injury for several months, the Canes are full of new faces, even to the most ardent fan. Though continuity is important, that's not necessarily bad news. "We've got a little bit more firepower than we had this time last year going into this season with Angel Rodriguez, Sheldon McClellan and Deandre Burnett," Coach Caputo told us. The three, all guards, were on the bench last year as transfer rules, in the case of Rodriguez and McClellan, and injury in the case of Burnett kept them off the court.

"This time last year, we did not return a double digit scorer and you had to think about how to manufacture points," said Caputo. That is no different this year, with sophomore Manu Lecomte the leading returner at 7.7 points per game from a team that scored only 61.5 PPG. But this year, the Hurricanes will have proven scorers. Rodriguez and McClellan both scored double-digits per game at Kansas State and Texas, respectively, and Burnett was known as one of the most dangerous scorers in all of prep basketball before coming to Miami. The Canes coaches would like to have four to six double-figure scorers, similar to the 2013 ACC Championship team - which did not quite meet that mark, but were a deep team with three scorers north of 12.9 PPG (Shane Larkin, Durand Scott and Kenny Kadji) and Trey McKinney-Jones at just over 9 PPG, and three others averaging more than 6 PPG.

"With that being said," Caputo explained,  "we had very good chemistry. Although you certainly want to be in the NCAA and compete for a league championship," added Caputo, "I think last year's team by all accounts was an overachieving group in a lot of ways," said Caputo. The Cardiac Canes lost by fewer than seven points in 10 of those contests,  including a thriller at then second-ranked Syracuse. Coach Larranaga adapted his defensive philosophy from a man-to-man into a heavy diet of zone defenses that slowed the tempo of the game and gave opponents fits.

Caputo told us that players like "Manu, Tonye [Jekiri] and Davon [Reed] got very good experience last year," though "all of them had very good moments as well as learning moments that comes with guys being freshman."  Caputo continued, saying that continuity is critical and the "biggest adjustment will come from all the new guys, whether it's the guys that sat out or the ones we brought in (freshmen Ja'Quan Newton, Omar Sherman, James Palmer, and junior college transfer Ivan Cruz Uceda). Caputo added that "even the guys that played last year that will be adjusting to new roles on the roster."

One Hurricane who will not be adjusting to a new role, but will be depended on more than ever, is junior center Jekiri. After playing as a regular starter for the first time last year, he progressed slowly throughout the season, but looked like an ACC-caliber starter by the end of the season. Though still inconsistent, in his last 10 games of the year, he produced his career high in scoring (15) at Florida State and his first career double-double, adding 14 points to a career-high 13 rebounds at NC State.  As the season progressed last year so did Tonye's skill set, albeit slowly.

One number that stands out was Tonye's  rebounding in the last month of the season. Caputo explained that minutes per rebound is "a big number the NBA people look at because they feel it translates. Anything under 3.5 is terrific and (Tonye) was at 3.3 in the last month." The team is also expecting improved offense from Tonye, in no small part due to the presence of Rodriguez. While he improved individual skills, including his free throw shot and other "facets of his game offensively," Caputo told us that "we always felt that Angel was going to be a tremendous help to Tonye. Angel's ability to get in the lane and draw in the defense and put the ball up in the air for Tonye gives him opportunities to get some very easy shots, which if you're a big frontcourt player, those are the shots you want those guys taking." Caputo added that he also expects for McClellan and Burnett to help space the floor for the Hurricanes big man.

Defense and conditioning have been at the center of early practices. "First week or so, we focus them on defense. That's how you win championships, with defense," Coach Huger told us. "All of the freshmen need to get better at defense. All of them can score and put numbers up, but the key is defense, getting them stronger, and getting them adjusted to college defense and not high school defense."

But what of Coach L's patented "scramble" defense, which he has rarely utilized at Miami? Don't expect the Canes to fully scrap the zone package that was installed last year. Huger explained that the team "has more to work with this year, but it was such an effective weapon for us that we can't go away from it. I'm sure that's something we'll still have in and introduce it to this group."  Caputo added that the expectation that all Larranaga teams play a high-intensity press is somewhat of a misconception. At George Mason, his early teams were "very heavy scramble, but later on the teams we had were bigger, and with the Final Four team (in 2006), we scrambled more in situations versus every possession." That is more likely what fans will see this year, with Caputo indicating that the Canes will likely play more "small ball" due to the depth at guard. "Even in our league there are going to be teams you want to matchup smaller with. Sometimes, you actually want to go smaller and faster against some bigger teams. Our game against Florida State, three years ago at home when we beat them, we had gone bigger up there (in Tallahassee), but then Reggie was out so we went small and were able to spread them out more."

Another key tenet of Coach Larrañaga's is that teams with the best conditioning ultimately put themselves in a better position to win close games. Coach Huger said that the team has taken to the weight room in the off-season. "Coach Felde has been doing an awesome job turning them into men," Huger explained. "When you see them now, the improvement on their bodies and the muscle mass they've put on its tremendous for such a short period of time." Caputo added that "those guys have committed to our way of doing things; we've got a very hard working group, guys taking pride in getting into the gym."

Both coaches are pleased with the early results in fall camp. "I'm expecting big things. With the talent we have this year, we should be very good," Huger told us. "I'm excited for the guys and for the opportunity to coach them; I'm really looking forward to it." But he did caution that with all of the new players, chemistry will need to be built and that fans should be "patient with us. We're a new squad, learning each other and its going to take time for us to gel."

As always SOTU's hoops consigliere, Josh Frank aka @joshdacane gets a tip of the hat for his contributions to this piece.