Jim Larrañaga has been coaching basketball for 37 years, but he is the first to admit he doesn’t have all the answers. He never is too proud to seek guidance.
He relies on advice from his assistants and sons, searches through books and movies for inspiration, and when he decided to switch from man-to-man defense to zone this season for the first time in his career, he went straight to his lengthy contact list for pointers.
The University of Miami basketball coach reached out to Ralph Willard, a former Rick Pitino assistant at Louisville who lives in Naples. He also called on Bernie Fine, a former Syracuse assistant of Jim Boeheim’s who lives in Fort Lauderdale. If anyone knows the intricacies of the zone, it is Willard and Fine. Both spent time with UM coaches and gave them a crash course.
“I saw us giving up a lot of easy baskets in our man-to-man and decided, ‘It doesn’t look like this is going to be our bread-and-butter defense,’” Larrañaga said. “It was kind of out of necessity.”
So far, looks like it was a good move.
The Hurricanes, who host rival Florida State on Wednesday night at 9, have won four of their past five games, including a statement win over North Carolina at the Dean Dome last week. They held the Tar Heels to 30.8 percent shooting, and it was the fourth time in a row Miami beat Carolina after going 2-18 against the perennial power. UM (9-6, 1-2 ACC) also put quite a scare into undefeated No. 2 Syracuse at the Carrier Dome before losing by five.
Miami’s restyled defense has allowed 60 points or less in the past nine games, and the Canes held Syracuse and North Carolina to more than 20 points below their season average. One key has been the insertion of 6-6 freshman guard Davon Reed into the starting lineup. His long arms help with perimeter defense.
“With Davon, the three guys at the top of the zone are all 6-6 with long arms,” senior Rion Brown said. “That’s tough out there trying to pass or shoot over.”
The zone will be tested against the Seminoles (11-4, 2-1), who made a school-record 16 three-pointers in a win over Maryland on Sunday.
“If they’re shooting it like they did against Maryland, no one can beat them,” Larrañaga said. “They were awesome.”
The FSU defense is tough to penetrate, a trademark of coach Leonard Hamilton, who built up the UM program in the 1990s. The Seminoles rank seventh nationally in field-goal percentage (.363) and are tied for eighth in blocks (6.7)
The Canes are expecting their most spirited crowd of the season. Classes resumed Monday after winter break, and the team went dorm storming Monday night to drum up support
“It’s a rivalry game, and the records don’t matter,’’ said UM senior forward Erik Swoope, who is coming off a career-high 14 points against UNC. “It’s going to be physical. It’s the pride of being the best team in Florida.’’