University of Miami

UM basketball team visits North Carolina with first place in ACC at stake

UM point guard Angel Rodriguez tries to drive through three North Carolina defenders during a game at BankUnited Center in Coral Gables on Saturday, February 28, 2015.
UM point guard Angel Rodriguez tries to drive through three North Carolina defenders during a game at BankUnited Center in Coral Gables on Saturday, February 28, 2015. El Nuevo Herald

Coaches love to insist they take things “one game at a time” and that they never look past an opponent. In Jim Larrañaga’s case, there is every reason to believe he was telling the truth heading into what has to be among the most challenging stretches any team in the nation will face this season.

His 11th-ranked University of Miami squad faces four Top 20 teams in a span of 12 days, beginning with a nationally televised 1 p.m. road game Saturday against fifth-ranked North Carolina. The Canes and Tar Heels are tied atop the ACC standings at 10-3, and the winner takes sole possession of first place.

Two days later, UM is home for a Monday night ESPN game against No. 7 Virginia. Next up after that: a Feb. 27 home game against No. 18 Louisville and a March 2 road game against No. 19 Notre Dame.

“Our game Saturday is for first place,” Larrañaga said. “Our game on Monday could be for first place. Then the game the following Saturday could be for first place. And then the game the next Wednesday could be for first place. But only if you win.

“These are very challenging games, but ones you look forward to.”

UM senior guard Angel Rodriguez added: “There are a lot of games left, a lot of tough games for us and for everybody in the conference. We can be in first place now, but if we don’t focus and do what we’re supposed to do, we can finish in fifth place, literally. It’s that close of a race.’’

The first task for the Hurricanes is to get past a Tar Heels team that will be highly motivated after a Wednesday night loss to archrival Duke.

Three years ago, UM faced a similar scenario. The Canes were red-hot and ranked No. 8. They had won 11 games in a row. A win over North Carolina would prove to any remaining doubters that they were for real.

LeBron James and Dwyane Wade showed up at BankUnited Center and watched as Shane Larkin, Kenny Kadji and the rest of the Canes electrified the crowd with an 87-61 victory.

“Miami is pretty dadgum good,” said North Carolina coach Roy Williams about a Canes team that went on to the Sweet 16.

The Hurricanes were 2-16 against the Tar Heels before Larrañaga was hired in 2011. He has gone 4-3 since and won the past two at the Dean Dome.

North Carolina is known for its rebounding, so UM’s coaches challenged their team to respond.

“With North Carolina it’s not just they are a terrific [team] on the first shot, but they are the best team in the country at offensive rebounding and sticking the ball in the basket,” Larrañaga said. “If you don’t take care of their five-second layups in transition and you don’t take care of your defensive backboards, you’re going to get your lunch handed to you.”

Michelle Kaufman: 305-376-3438, @kaufsports

Saturday: No. 11 UM men at No. 5 North Carolina

When, where: 1 p.m., Dean Smith Center, Chapel Hill, N.C.

TV, radio: CBS; WQAM (560), WVUM (90.5 FM).

Records: UM 21-4 (10-3 ACC); UNC 21-5 (10-3).

Scouting report: UM comes into Saturday on a five-game winning streak, and Ja’Quan Newton returns after missing Wednesday’s game with an undisclosed illness. … UNC leads the ACC with 40.7 rebounds per game. … Brice Johnson had 22 points and 11 rebounds against the Canes last season, and on Wednesday he had 29 points and 19 rebounds against Duke. … The last time the teams played, the Tar Heels won 73-64 last season in Coral Gables, outrebounding the Canes 42-28.