As if playing Syracuse at the Carrier Dome wasn’t daunting enough for the University of Miami men’s basketball team, turns out the Orange is trailing in a national attendance race with Kentucky, so a crowd of more than 30,000 is expected for Saturday’s game to help boost its season average.
Syracuse is averaging 21,557 fans per game while Kentucky is at 23,285.
It will be yet another big test against an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent with a rich pedigree. So far in the month of January, the Canes have lost in double overtime to second-ranked and undefeated Virginia, beaten then-No. 4 Duke convincingly on the road and lost a close road game against then-No. 12 Notre Dame. They also got home wins over Boston College and North Carolina State.
Asked how he feels about this tough stretch in the schedule, UM coach Jim Larrañaga said: “You mean that every team is a past national champion? Duke has won national titles, N.C. State, Syracuse, Louisville (coming up Feb. 3). There are no easy games in the ACC. Everybody’s got NBA talent.”
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Heading into the game against the Orange, the Hurricanes are in seventh place in the 15-team conference. Syracuse is fourth. Virginia, Notre Dame and North Carolina are 1-2-3.
“Virginia has clearly established themselves as the front-runner,” Larrañaga said. “After that, it’s a real dogfight. Duke’s turned the corner. After two straight losses, they’ve got two high-quality wins. Carolina, Syracuse, it’s a pretty deep league. I think the league will deserve seven, maybe eight [NCAA Tournament] bids.”
To beat the Orange, UM will have to contend with Syracuse’s trademark 2-3 zone defense. On the other end of the floor, the Canes will have to contain leading scorer Rakeem Christmas, who ranks second in the ACC at 18 points per game. Another big threat is Michael Gbinije, who scored 17 points on 7-of-12 shooting in Tuesday’s victory over Boston College. Gbinije has reached double figures in all six ACC games. And Trevor Cooney is averaging 14.1 points per game.
The Hurricanes’ offense continues to be led by transfers Sheldon McClellan and Angel Rodriguez. McClellan is averaging 15.4 points, and Rodriguez is at 14.5. Center Tonye Jekiri is the top rebounder in the conference at 10.1 per game.
UM has become one of the best three-point shooting teams in the ACC, ranking second behind Notre Dame with an average of 8.3 made per game. Against N.C. State on Thursday, the Hurricanes connected on nine threes from five players — McClellan, Rodriguez, Davon Reed, Omar Sherman and James Palmer.
“We’re a very good three-point shooting team when we get good looks,” Larrañaga said. “I tell them all the time, ‘We need at least eight to win.’ ”
Reed, finding his form after missing the early part of the season with a leg injury, started against the Wolfpack. He finished with 10 points, two assists and one steal in 31 minutes. He played so well that coaches decided to shorten the bench, and DeAndre Burnett did not get into the game.
UM is also benefitting from its accuracy at the free-throw line. The Canes rank third behind Virginia and Notre Dame at 72 percent.
After the Syracuse game, UM returns home to face Georgia Tech at 9 p.m. Wednesday.
UM men at Syracuse
When: Saturday, 4 p.m.
Where: Carrier Dome, Syracuse, NY
Records: UM (13-5, 3-2 ACC), Syracuse (14-5, 5-1 ACC)
T.V./Radio: ESPN2, WQAM-560 AM
Noteworthy: The Orange is 11-1 at home this season and coming off a 69-61 win over Boston College. UM is coming off a 65-60 home win over NC State. Syracuse players to watch are Rakeem Christmas and Michael Gbinije. UM will have to adjust to Syracuse’s trademark 2-3 zone defense.