In my opinion

Linda Robertson: Despite losing to Duke, UM shows it’s relevant

 
 
Miami Hurricanes forward Donnavan Kirk fights for position under the basket against Duke Blue Devils forward Amile Jefferson (21) during the first half of their game at the BankUnited Center in Coral Gables, Fla., on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014.
Miami Hurricanes forward Donnavan Kirk fights for position under the basket against Duke Blue Devils forward Amile Jefferson (21) during the first half of their game at the BankUnited Center in Coral Gables, Fla., on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014.
David Santiago / El Nuevo Herald

lrobertson@MiamiHerald.com

The last time the Duke Blue Devils came to our little college basketball incubator in Coral Gables, the University of Miami Hurricanes beat them soundly in the most momentous upset in the program’s history.

Duke was No. 1 last January, and UM soared to its best season ever, which included a No. 2 ranking and Atlantic Coast Conference season and tournament titles.

The rematch Wednesday night did not have nearly the same gravity, with unranked UM run over by No. 18 Duke 67-46.

But the fact that a raucous vibe befitting the sport heated BankUnited Center on a chilly evening was proof of progress. Even during a down year, UM is showing it is a legit member of the ACC.

Dick Vitale, who lives up the road in Sarasota, shared his unwavering passion for the game. LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, who play against each other Thursday, were in attendance, as was Duke alum Shane Battier. Dwyane Wade shot backward half-court shots with Sebastian the Ibis at halftime. The student section was packed, as it should be for every game. NBA scouts and curious fans came to see Duke freshman Jabari Parker before he turns pro. Others — including the Olympians who won gold medals under Mike Krzyzewski in Beijing and London — came to see the ageless Coach K and his latest incarnation of Final Four contenders.

Just a week ago the Florida State game rocked the arena and on Saturday, No. 2 Syracuse pays a visit. Finally, it sounds like college basketball season in South Florida.

The no-name Hurricanes (10-8, 2-4) might not be the national sensation they were in 2013, but coach Jim Larrañaga has given people a reason to pay attention.

Larrañaga is working another minor miracle but with a different roster. He’s a chef creating stone soup out of basic ingredients.

UM never got anything going against vastly superior Duke and Parker, who scored 17 points and grabbed 15 rebounds while impressing James. Indifferent rebounding that yielded 22 second-chance points to Duke wrecked the game plan. But UM defeated North Carolina in Chapel Hill and nearly upset Syracuse inside the Carrier Dome. They’ve got the maw of the schedule yet to come with 12 more conference games but so far they’re holding their own.

Larrañaga isn’t doing it with mirrors. He’s doing it with zone defense. For a coach who has sworn by man-to-man defense for 30 years, switching to zone has been like learning to write with the opposite hand.

Larrañaga adapted out of necessity, he said, because his team was giving up too many easy baskets. He took a crash course in zone from coaching colleagues, then taught his assistants and players.

Krzyzewski said UM has the potential to beat anybody with that confounding defense.

UM held UNC and Syracuse 20 points below their average output. UNC shot 30.8 percent and Syracuse managed to score only 49 points. In nine of 11 games preceding Duke, UM limited opponents to 60 points or fewer.

Duke came in averaging 82.6, nineteenth highest in the nation, so UM did a commendable job on the defensive end, except in the rebounding department, where UM was out-hustled 42-28.

“The shortest guy on the court can get a rebound; it’s basically effort,” Larrañaga said. “Maybe with all the celebrities that showed up, instead of that igniting us I think we froze. We didn’t play with the same kind of competitive spirit that we’ve had.”

Larrañaga tried to correct the problem at halftime, then Duke came out and scored its first basket of the second half on an offensive rebound by Parker.

Said UM center Tonye Jekiri: “The aggressiveness wasn’t there.”

Jekiri, who was a soccer player in Nigeria until he got to high school, is one of the raw ingredients Larrañaga is cooking with. A consummate coach, he is drawing potential from every pore of his players.

He has no choice. He lost his top six scorers from last season.

Donnavan Kirk, who transferred from UM to DePaul and back again, is looking better and better. Among his Thursday highlights, he swished a three-pointer and muscled a shot-put field goal over Rasheed Sulaimon.

Garrius Adams has survived two seasons of injuries to become a solid contributor. James Kelly didn’t start playing until his junior year of high school. Point guard Manu Lecomte is another project. He arrived weighing 140 pounds. The Belgian had no experience in U.S. basketball aside from watching games on YouTube.

Larrañaga has done this before, of course. He did it at Bowling Green. He did it at George Mason — most famously in 2006 when he became the first coach in 27 years to lead a mid-major school to the Final Four.

He’s expecting a tough season of ups, downs, experiments and different combinations, and the Duke game wasn’t played the way he had envisioned it.

“I was a little maybe a lot surprised about the way we played,” he said. “Over the past five games we were consistent but we took a step backward.”

But leave it to Larrañaga to figure things out by the time Syracuse gets here. Watching the Hurricanes might not be as glorious as it was last year, but with Larrañaga pulling his strings it will be fascinating.

Read more Linda Robertson stories from the Miami Herald

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