The New Year’s Eve celebration started Monday night for the University of Miami men’s basketball team with a lopsided 71-48 home win over Loyola (Md.), but the party hats won’t be out long because 2014 is about to slap the Hurricanes down to Earth in a hurry.
Miami has road games at undefeated No. 2 Syracuse on Saturday and at No. 19 North Carolina four days later. The Orange, which joined the ACC this season, is 12-0 and expecting a huge crowd at the Carrier Dome.
“We’re going to be stepping up to a major level of talent because our next opponent is Syracuse, they’re undefeated, Top 5 in the nation…No. 1 in offensive efficiency, so the challenge dramatically increases,’’ said UM coach Jim Larrañaga.
“I’m sure we’ll be a major underdog on the road at Syracuse, but it’s about playing well that night, and that goes for both teams. I’ve been the underdog often enough to know.’’
Larrañaga, who coached unheralded George Mason to the Final Four and last year’s UM team to the Sweet 16, then told the tale of his underdog Bowling Green team once shocking Kentucky at Rupp Arena.
It remains to be seen if this inexperienced Miami team will pull some stunners. The Canes have shown signs of improvement over three consecutive wins, all by a margin of at least 15 points. They reached a 33-point lead Monday, biggest of the season. They shot 60 percent in the first half (5-of-9 from three-point range) and 54 percent for the game.
After six early season games with single-digit assists, the Hurricanes (8-5) are sharing the ball much better, with 17 assists against Loyola and 16 in their previous game against LaSalle. They are also getting comfortable in the newly-installed zone defense, which seems a better fit for this year’s team than the man-to-man UM used last year.
They were able to hold Loyola’s Dylon Cormier, who averaged 24.1 points per game, to 11. Rion Brown led UM with 17 points and nine rebounds. Donnavan Kirk had 12, James Kelly 11 and Tonye Jekiri a career-high 10. Freshman guard Davon Reed had seven assists to go with eight points.
“I know they lost a lot from the Sweet 16 team, but this UM team will be a threat in the ACC because they are long and defend so well on the perimeter,’’ said Loyola coach GG Smith, eldest son of Tubby Smith.
The game was decided so early that seldom-used players from both teams got to play, including Mike Fernandez, Justin Heller and Steve Sorenson for UM and Loyola guard Sean (“SJ’’) Tuohy, Jr., whose adopted brother, Michael Oher, was the subject of the Blind Side movie.
“We’re finally hitting our stride in a lot of areas, and it shows in the score,’’ said Reed.