University of Miami

Miami Hurricanes men’s basketball opens ACC play against defense-minded Virginia

Miami Hurricanes players wait to start again after a time out during the first half against Savannah State University at the BankUnited Center in Coral Gables on Dec. 8, 2014.
Miami Hurricanes players wait to start again after a time out during the first half against Savannah State University at the BankUnited Center in Coral Gables on Dec. 8, 2014. el Nuevo Herald

The rest of the University of Miami student body is still on winter break for another week, but the men’s and women’s basketball teams are deeply immersed in their work, preparing for huge tests as they open the Atlantic Coast Conference season this weekend.

The men are home Saturday in a nationally televised game against undefeated No.3 Virginia (5:30 p.m., ESPN2). The women play home games Sunday against Boston College and Thursday against No.4 Notre Dame (12-1).

“It doesn’t get better than starting the ACC at home against the No.3 team in the country,’’ said UM point guard Angel Rodriguez. “Everybody knows how great a team they are, defensively and offensively. It’s a great opportunity for us because with all the ups and downs we’ve had, it’s a great challenge to see where we’re standing as a team and how badly we want to compete.’’

The Cavaliers are defending ACC champions, and 12-0 for the first time since the Ralph Sampson era in the early 1980s. Terry Holland was the head coach then, and UM coach Jim Larrañaga was a Cavs assistant. Larrañaga still has ties with the school, and is close friends with athletic director Craig Littlepage, who was an assistant with Larrañaga on Holland’s staff.

Virginia is undefeated thanks to its stifling pack line defense, which sags into the paint, clogs the middle and makes it very difficult for opponents to penetrate. The Cavaliers rank No.2 in the nation in scoring defense, allowing just 48.2 points per game. Only Kentucky is stingier.

Virginia kept two teams below 28 points so far this season, including Harvard, which two weeks ago managed just one first-half field goal in a 76-27 loss — tying an NCAA record for fewest field goals in a half. Harvard’s starting five went 1for32 in that half.

The Cavs also rank No.2 in field-goal percentage allowed (32.6 percent), and No.3 in rebounding margin (plus-14.4). They are winning games by an average of 22.4 points.

“What makes Virginia so good is their consistency,’’ Larrañaga said. “A lot of teams can play defense really hard for short periods of time, can share the ball and get open shots for a short period of time. But Virginia does it every time down the floor. They don’t take any possessions off.’’

The Cavs race back on defense, so they don’t give up a lot of fastbreak baskets. They are relentless rebounders. And they don’t foul much, so opponents can’t count on free throws.

“We have to crash the boards every time, and bring a lot of energy,’’ said UM center Tonye Jekiri. “This is the ACC now, big-time rival, and we have something to prove.’’

Virginia is experienced, with leaders such as Justin Anderson, Malcolm Brogdon, London Perrantes, Anton Gill and Mike Tobey.

Miami has nine new players this season, and started on an 8-0 streak that landed the Canes in the top 25, as high as No.15 on Dec.1. But they lost three of the next four, including an embarrassing 28-point home loss to Eastern Kentucky. Coaches challenged players to clamp down on defense, and they did in a win against College of Charleston on Tuesday.

Rodriguez blamed team “immaturity’’ for the funk.

“I was embarrassed and disappointed,’’ he said about the loss to Eastern Kentucky. “I’ve never been part of something like that. But, it’s a learning experience. We needed a humbling experience, and there is nothing more humbling than losing by 30 points at your home to an opponent you should have beaten. Hopefully, we grew up and won’t let it happen again.’’

No. 3 Virginia at UM men

When/where: 5:30 p.m.; BankUnited Center.

TV/radio: ESPN2; WQAM 560, WSUA 1260 (Spanish), WVUM 90.5 FM.

Records: UM 10-3; Virginia 12-0.

Noteworthy: The Cavaliers rank No. 2 in the nation in scoring defense and field-goal percentage allowed. The last time they were 12-0 was 1983, with Ralph Sampson. … UM is coming off a 67-40 win over Charleston.