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Did Canes Hoops really finish 3rd in the ACC?

How did Miami end up with a positive result during what felt like a lackluster season?

NCAA Basketball: Miami at North Carolina
The Canes have plenty to celebrate at this point.
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Hurricanes just completed another regular season. If I asked you a month ago where they finished in the conference, you probably would have guessed 6th, 7th, 8th, maybe even 9th. Those same Canes, the ones who lost to 3 out of the bottom 6 teams in the conference, the ones who gave up 103 points to Florida State, the ones who gave up a 13-point lead late in the game to Duke, the ones who lost Bruce Brown Jr to a foot injury back in January, those Canes finished 3rd in the ACC, behind the #1 and #5 teams in the country. How did this happen? I’m definitely excited, but it almost seems too good to be true. Let’s look at how the Canes pulled off this amazing feat, just in time for the conference tournament:

The Canes went 7-3 since losing Bruce Brown Jr

I remember that Monday morning. We had just lost a tough game to the Seminoles, a game in which we scored a million points, but still lost by 9 after playing zero defense. The defensive identity of this team was ripped to shreds by our rivals to the tune of 103 points. Things didn’t seem like they could get any worse, until I saw the headline “Miami’s Brown out 6 Weeks with foot injury.” Our do-it-all point guard and leader was going to be out for the rest of the regular season. It almost felt like a death sentence for the 2018 season. But somehow, the young group of Canes stepped up to the plate and produced a better second half of ACC play. Chris Lykes filled the point guard void, starting the majority of those 10 games while keeping defenses on their heels. Lonnie Walker IV rose to superstar status in Coral Gables, putting up the type of performances we were hoping to get from our top recruit when he signed last year. Dewan Huell, Anthony Lawrence II, and Ebuka Izundu anchored the defense and converted some major buckets in the paint. Even Sam Waardenburg became a reliable contributor down the stretch. The young guys made it happen.

NCAA Basketball: Virginia Tech at Miami
Senior Ja’Quan Newton hasn’t had his best year, but he has made some valuable plays in crunch time.
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The Canes won close games

All season, the Canes have either completely fallen apart in the second half or managed to grind out a win. In games decided by 5 points or less, Miami went 7-1 this season. The lone loss came against Boston College, on a night when Coach Larranaga stayed in the locker room because of the flu. Coincidence? I think not. Coach L has done a great job of putting in the right players in crunch time this season. While his performance this season is the topic of much debate among Canes Fans, senior Ja’Quan Newton has been pretty reliable at the end of games for the Canes, especially later in the season. Yes he hit that amazing buzzer-beater to take down UNC, but even before that and in other contests, his ability to get to the line late has been crucial (even without the threat of shooting from the outside). The experience of winning the close games will be extremely valuable come tournament time.

The Canes ended on a tear

A little over two weeks ago, the Canes were in the midst of a 3-game losing streak, they were sitting in 10th place in the ACC, and many questioned whether the Canes would be playing in the big dance or the NIT (or neither). That feels like an eternity ago, as Miami reeled off 4 straight wins, all in dramatic fashion. First came a 3-point win over Notre Dame, as the Irish would not go away despite their season being derailed by a rash of injuries. It took some late shots by Lonnie Walker IV and two clutch and-1’s by Ebuka Izundu to pull out the victory. Next came a 1-point victory over Boston College, a dangerous team who stung the Hurricanes 4 games prior with a late comeback. This time, it was the Canes who would mount a thrilling comeback, making up a 14-point deficit with 6 minutes to go, capped off by an ice cold step-back 3 from Lonnie Walker IV with 2 seconds left. Then came the game of the season, in which the seemingly overmatched Canes took down UNC in Chapel Hill on their senior night. Miami controlled the majority of the game, leading by 16 at a point in the second half. The Tar Heels mounted a huge comeback, tying the game with 3 seconds left. Instead of being completely deflated by blowing a huge lead, Ja’Quan Newton immediately took the ball up the court and hit a shot etched into the minds of Canes fans forever. Miami then finished the season by closing out a formidable Virginia Tech squad who had already defeated Virginia, Duke, and UNC this season. The Canes once again showed plenty of composure, coming back from a 12-point deficit and holding on to a tight lead down the stretch. Not only did the Canes win their last 4 games, but they were all tough games.

NCAA Basketball: Miami at Notre Dame
Lonnie Walker IV has ripped the hearts out of opponents on multiple occasions
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The Canes took advantage of a good situation

Like much of college basketball this season, there were not many dominant teams in the ACC this season. Virginia was the most dominant, finishing 17-1 in the conference, followed by Duke at 13-5. The next 9 teams were separated by only 3 games, with the first 4 (including the Canes) all tied at 11-7. While the Canes had some rough stretches during conference play, they never really fell out of reach, and they won games down the stretch when they needed to. You can see how well distributed the talent was this season by the All-ACC teams released this weekend. While Duke and Virginia had 3 players each spread across the First, Second, and Third Teams, North Carolina was the only other team with 2 players on the 3 teams. Everyone else had 1 or 0 (the Canes had 0, as Lonnie Walker IV was named Honorable Mention). Combine all of those factors, and you have the Canes as the 3 seed in the conference, and 2 byes in the tourney.

Now that the Canes have secured a quarterfinal berth in the ACC tournament, could they continue their momentum all the way to the ACC final? Let us know what you think in the comments.