While most supporters of the Miami Hurricanes have been overly-concerned with gridiron losses, falling to conference rivals and an ongoing search for the football program’s next leader—The U’s men’s basketball squad won the Puerto Rico Tipoff Championship.
While that might come off as some meaningless early-season, the quality of opponents the Canes knocked off shows that Miami is for real and that this could be a special season for head coach Jim Larranaga and his deep squad.
The Canes rolled up Mississippi State on Friday night, 105-79—Miami’s highest points total since amassing that same number in 2004 against Savannah State; hardly an SEC program.
Senior guard Sheldon McClellan led the way for Miami with 18 points, followed by an 11-point outing via guard Angel Rodriguez. The Canes led the Bulldogs by 24 at the half and never let up.
Come Saturday, the season’s first true test in sixteenth-ranked Utah and another dominating performance.
McClellan scored 27, while center Tonye Jekiri had a 20-point, 12-rebound outing. Over two games, the Hurricanes were shooting 55-percent, and 41-percent from 3-point range, while scoring 49 points off of opponents’ turnovers. Again the Utes, the Canes had a 23-4 edge in turnovers, en rout to the 90-66 upset.
Butler reached Sunday’s finale by knocking off Missouri State and Temple, where an Owls win would’ve set up a rematch of last year’s NIT finale, where Miami fell to Temple in overtime.
Instead, a Bulldogs versus Canes match-up and an important game for Miami against an NCAA Tournament-seasoned program. Sixth-seeded Butler knocked off Texas in the last year’s opening round, before falling to third-seeded Notre Dame in overtime over the weekend.
Two years prior, an opening round over eleventh-seeded Bucknell, before falling 74-72 to the third-seeded Marquette team that took down the second-seeded Canes before eventually falling to Syracuse in the Elite Eight.
After trading early three-pointers on Sunday night, Miami pushed the lead to five and eventually seven, thanks to McClellan and Rodriguez hitting threes, a Jekiri jumper and dunk, as well as a Ja’Quan Newton lay-up and two free throws.
A steal, lay-up and three-pointer by Anthony Lawrence—the latter a result of a Jekiri block and rebound—had Miami up, 21-9 and Butler calling a timeout with 12:01 remaining in the half.
Minutes later the Canes’ lead stretched to 16 before the Bulldogs began to hit some shots, ending a three-minute scoring drought. Miami led 42-29 at the half, before a more-spirited second period where Butler closed to within four points with 3:22 remaining—courtesy of a 9-0 run by the Bulldogs over a two-minute span.
Free throws were the name of the game for Miami, while Butler’s offense went cold. Jekiri, Davon Reed and Rodriguez all went two-for-two from the line, pushing the lead back to nine.
The Bulldogs one scored one point over a three-minute span as the Canes pulled away—McClellan knocking down back-to-back free throws with under a minute to play, pushing the lead back to 12. Miami finished the game hitting 22-of-24 from the charity stripe.
Rodriguez—a native Puerto Rican, playing in front of a home crowd—finished with 19 points over 29 minutes, going 6-of-10 in field goals made and 2-of-3 from beyond-the-arc, while Jekiri logged 34 minutes, scored 12 and pulled down a dozen rebounds.
Miami—now 5-0 on the season—opened with eight consecutive wins last season, including taking down the field at the Charleston Classic last November. From there, focus was somehow lost—three Hurricanes having a nightmarish December, losing three of four—including head-scratching losses to Green Bay, Eastern Kentucky and Providence.
The loss in confidence wound up costing Miami when conference play got underway, dropping an early January double overtime loss to third-ranked Virginia, 89-80.
According to Rodriguez, players were already talking up last season’s setback as soon as the Butler win was in the books.
“That to me is truly more special than just simply winning this tournament,” Rodriguez told the AP, “to know that the guys are hungry for more.”
Next up for Miami; a Friday home game against Northeastern before trekking to Nebraska next Tuesday in the Big Ten / ACC Challenge. After that, a proverbial trap game at home against a Charlotte team it beat twice in last year’s Charleston Classic before an early December mid-week showdown at The BUC against the hated Florida Gators.
Atlantic Coast Conference play gets underway for Miami on Saturday January 2nd with a home game against Syracuse. Florida State heads south the following weekend, before the Canes hit the road for three tough conference games at Virginia, Clemson and Boston College.