Jim Morris, the longtime University of Miami baseball coach, would have been mighty proud Tuesday night had he walked past the ballroom at the downtown hotel where the Hurricanes men’s basketball team is staying for the Sweet 16.
The third-seeded Canes, preparing for Thursday night’s game against No. 2 seed Villanova, were running around the hotel ballroom playing a game of nerf baseball. Black tape served as the bases. Their large hands served as bats. UM coach Jim Larrañaga served as the umpire.
It was the guards against the big men. The guards won easily, 4-0. In the words of forward Kamari Murphy: “The guards destroyed us. I don’t know how or why, but it was a lot of fun.”
That three-letter word, F-U-N, has become an important ingredient in Larrañaga’s recipe for success. His George Mason team that reached the 2006 Final Four took over some hotel ballrooms for nerf baseball, and he felt Tuesday was the perfect baseball night for this Hurricanes team, which is attempting to make school history by reaching the Elite Eight.
The Canes are in their second Sweet 16 in four years. The Wildcats are here for the first time since 2009.
“He wants us to go out there and have fun and play hard,” guard Ja’Quan Newton said. “He doesn’t want us to be uptight and so serious where you go out there and you’re so anxious to play and making mistakes. He just wants you to be relaxed. He always wants guys to be laughing and joking … and enjoying the moment.”
The Hurricanes looked loose at practice Wednesday afternoon at the KFC Yum! Center. Guard Angel Rodriguez hit four halfcourt shots with ease. This is a veteran UM team; and players insist they are not overwhelmed by the occasion, even though Tonye Jekiri is the only one on the team who has played in a Sweet 16.
“They’re experienced, fifth-year senior guys, so they’re not rattled,” said Grant Hill, the Turner Sports NCAA analyst who will be calling the game for CBS on Thursday. “Even that game against Wichita State, when they got back in it, that would rattle a lot of teams; but Miami’s a tough, resilient bunch. They have a great point guard in Rodriguez, great backcourt with [Sheldon] McClellan, as good as any backcourt in college basketball.
“I kind of get the feeling they’re one of those teams a lot of people don’t know about. They’re starting to learn. They’ve flown under the radar all season, but they’re really good. They could win the whole thing, that’s how talented they are. And they have great coaching.”
Larrañaga and Villanova coach Jay Wright have been friends for 10 years. They met on the recruiting trail, and clicked. Their wives play golf together. They have even exchanged practice drills and coaching philosophies.
“There are a number of drills he gave me, where you put time on the clock and see how many three-pointers you can make. He keeps a record, and [Shane] Larkin has the most. No one on our team has broken Larkin’s record.”
Both teams use a lot of ball screens. Both are guard-oriented, though Miami has more size.
“We’re almost like the mirror image of them,” Larrañaga said.
The Wildcats guards, Ryan Arcidiacono, Josh Hart and Jalen Brunson, will go up against Rodriguez, McClellan and Davon Reed. In the paint, 7-foot Jekiri faces 6-11 Daniel Ochefu.
The key, said McClellan, will be perimeter defense and avoiding turnovers.
“They get a lot of their momentum off threes, so, definitely we want to run them off the three-point line,” he said “Don’t want to let them get comfortable there. They kind of play a pressure defense. Pretty sure if they watched our last game, they’re going to pressure us because we had a couple of unforced turnovers.
“I have trust in our guards that we’ll take care of the ball so that won’t be a problem.”
Murphy agreed: “We have to be there on the catch, contest all threes. I think with our guards and our bigs, we match up pretty well. I would say we have the advantage but if they get it going on the three-point line they’re a hard team to beat. We understand that.”
If it comes down to intangibles, UM might have the edge because the Canes are the underdog.
Said Murphy: “We just try to set the tone and let people know, we’re here. We’re not just here by accident. Once again we’ve got a chip on our shoulder this game, just to show people Miami is good. We’re here for a reason. We didn’t hit a buzzer-beater to get here. We actually won our games, and we’re looking forward to winning another one.”
Writer Josh Abner contributed to this report.
Thursday: UM vs. Villanova
When/where: 7:10 p.m.; KFC Yum! Center, Louisville, Ky.
Records: UM 27-7; Villanova 31-5.
TV/radio: CBS; WQAM (560).
Scouting report: UM guard Angel Rodriguez averaged 26 points, 4.5 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 3.5 steals in the first two NCAA Tournament games. He will be up against Ryan Arcidiacono, who in his last 10 games has handed out 61 assists with just eight turnovers. …UM 7-foot center Tonye Jekiri will be counted on to score more than usual.