With a team in the top 15 of both voter polls as well as objective mathematical rankings like the RPI and KenPom.com, it's obvious that the Miami Hurricanes are on track for success even in the gauntlet that is ACC play. But the coaches see their success in the non-conference as something other than building a resume for Selection Sunday.
"Obviously, we have a very good non-conference record. Short of a jump shot at the buzzer (against Northeastern), we'd be undefeated," said Caputo. "More than that, we did some good things in terms of improvement during the non-conference that will help us in league play. We got better as we went along, showed some resiliency, and had big wins where we needed to come together and show some maturity, growth and toughness."
After Northeastern hit 12 three-pointers in the upset and Nebraska hit nine in pushing the Hurricanes to overtime, the staff pressed for a renewed emphasis in taking away the opponents' three-point shot. Caputo cites the constant improvement on defense as the biggest key to the season, and the reason why the Hurricanes have had five consecutive double-digit wins in the last month since those two games.
"I actually thought we were getting better as the season started...we were moving in the right direction but without [Kamari] Murphy," Caputo said, referring to the transfer forward who is known for his defensive versatility. "Even though he came back against Butler and Utah, he really wasn't comfortable having sat out a full year and a couple of games (to start this year). I knew when he came back and got into rhythm on defense, he was going to be a lot better. I really think we've improved (since then). Going into the Princeton game, we were 33 in the KenPom (defensive rating), and despite dropping a few points (now 39), we played a good game. Now, we did turn the ball over enough that they got ‘pick-six' plays (easy points off of turnovers) and so if you take those out, they were like at 1.0 points per possession, had we not turned it over we would have been under 1, which was a very good defensive game. "
In spite of those turnovers and moments of carelessness in the Princeton game, UM is still running one of the country's most efficient offenses. KenPom has the team as the seventh-best adjusted offense nationally, and a big reason for that has been taking and making higher-percentage shots. The team is eighth nationally shooting at 51.0 percent, 17th in three-point percentage at 41.2 percent, and sixth in free throw shooting at 77.4 percent. At 85.3 points per game, the team is 16th nationally, an improvement of nearly 18 points from both last year's season average and its average during the five NIT games played with the new 30-second shot clock.
This has truly been a team effort. Every scholarship player on the team has an offensive rating above "100", meaning that their efforts are estimated to contribute more than a point per possession. Senior guard Sheldon McClellan is an obvious standout, but has been even better than that, leading all qualified-ACC players in effective shooting percentage (63.8 percent), true shooting percentage (69.2 percent), and offensive rating (141.1), hitting shots from all over the floor. The mercurial point guard Angel Rodriguez has improved both of those advanced shooting percentages by over 11 percent year-to-year. Caputo also cited key improvements from two returnees off the bench - sophomore guard Ja'Quan Newton, whose improved attack and free throw shooting have him averaging 11.8 points per game in just over 21 minutes of action, and senior forward Ivan Cruz Uceda, whose lauded physical improvements have led to obvious defensive improvement, but also to him shooting a vastly improved 56.1 percent from deep.
And even with the already improved offense, the Hurricanes aren't done. "We've got some things we're going to use within what we're doing...that as we get into league play, people haven't seen," Caputo said. "Even as you get into the second half of league play you try to have some of those things in your repertoire. Some of those things happen organically because of the way we play, so you take a snapshot of something that happened and say 'Okay, that was good for us, let's use this.'"
With fan expectations sky-high and comparisons to the 2013 ACC double winners being thrown around, Caputo cautions that the league is deeper this time around. "I think we're in a good place, but the league is so good that you almost have to put the non-conference behind you and take what you've learned and apply that to what is a very difficult league," Caputo said.
Still, the Miami Hurricanes know that their non-conference reputation precedes them, and while the lofty rankings and laudatory plaudits are well-deserved as they head into the ACC, it also makes them a marked team in a conference where every game is a dogfight. They intend to prove that starting Saturday against Syracuse, and right through March where they hope to cut down souvenirs to bring back to Coral Gables.
As always a huge thanks to SOTU's CanesHoops Consigliere Josh Frank (aka @JoshDaCane)!