I was in Providence cheering on the Canes against a scrappy, under-seeded Wichita State team, so here are my impressions from just a few rows behind the Miami bench. While it's obvious how locked in Angel Rodriguez was on Saturday, the difference maker was the swagger (yes, I said the "S-word") that he showed. Instead of playing more conservatively, Angel stayed aggressive even after a 21-point lead evaporated.
Coach Jim Larrañaga losing his cool was not a surprise either, as the team watched their comfortable double-digit lead slip away. Badly needing a spark, Coach L took the opportunity after two highly questionable calls, blowing his top and getting called for a technical foul, only his second in five years at Miami. This had the desired effect, as it seemed to snap the team out of a funk and refocused them.
The final turning point came around the 9:33 mark of the second half, when Wichita St. had taken their first (and only) lead. The team immediately responded, with Angel hitting a sprinting Sheldon McClellan in full stride with a half court lob that ignited the Miami faithful and put the Hurricanes on top for good.
At the final TV timeout, Coach L said McClellan came into the huddle with a message for his teammates, "We're not losing this game, we're not losing this game," McClellan belowed. " Pick it up, let's play, come on, go after these guys! We're not losing this game." Usually, it's Rodriguez who is the vocal leader, so having Sheldon rally the team late was a huge factor in closing out, and his basketball and vocal heroics will both be needed against Villanova.
As for the matchup against the Wildcats, no team in the second weekend of the NCAAs is a pushover. But the Hurricanes match up well, in my opinion. Villanova starts two 6'3" guards in senior Ryan Arcidiacono at point and talented freshman Jalen Brunson at the two. Their frontcourt lacks height, with stud junior swingman Josh Hart and an undersized bowling ball named Kris Jenkins at the power forward. Jenkins, who at 240 pounds has a versatile inside-outside game, has the bulk and low center of gravity to give Kamari Murphy and his backups some trouble. The frontcourt is anchored by senior big man Daniel Ochefu, who is a near mirror image of Tonye Jekiri. The Hurricanes have a size advantage at every position except the point, but Rodriguez has never backed down from hounding bigger guards. Look for Reed or McClellan to guard Hart with the other taking Brunson. If Murphy and Jekiri can protect the rim, Villanova team may start to settle for outside jump shots - which they are certainly capable of hitting, but would also make them very one-dimensional. On offense, the Hurricanes will look to exploit an aggressive, trapping defense for open shots and straight-line drives to the hoop.
If Miami can protect the ball and avoid giving up points in transition, the opportunity should exist to put points on the board and to slow down the Wildcats. Villanova has had a relatively easy road to the Sweet 16, with 19- and 30-point wins against over-matched opponents. Though just one spot over on the seed line, Miami has clawed against under-seeded and tournament-experienced opponents. Will Villanova be prepared for a battle against a more even opponent, and will Miami be prepared for a scrappy team that has equal talent? We'll have our answer Thursday night.
As always thanks to SOTU's CanesHoops Consigliere Josh Frank (@JoshDaCane) for his input!
Here are some highlights of the Canes big win on Saturday: