CORAL GABLES, Fla. — The University of Miami men’s basketball team’s victory over Wake Forest on Saturday afternoon meant more than the typical matchup between teams near the bottom of the Atlantic Coast Conference standings.
The Hurricanes (16-15, 7-11 ACC) dropped their first six ACC games at BankUnited Center but ended the regular season winners of three straight at home.
They enter this week’s ACC Tournament at Greensboro Coliseum with momentum they struggled to capture during a competitive slate of games.
"It’s nice to be playing and feeling good about yourself," head coach Jim Larranaga said. "I don’t think there was any pressure on this team (Saturday) like there was last year. Last year we were playing for the league outright. There was something to lose."
Around this time in 2013, Miami entered the ACC Tournament fresh off its first regular-season title in history. The Hurricanes would go on to run the gauntlet, capturing the championship en route to a Sweet 16 appearance.
Come 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, 10th-seeded Miami will look to turn away an unlikely nemesis, 15th-seeded Virginia Tech (9-21, 2-16 ACC). The Hokies beat the Hurricanes twice in the regular season for both of their conference wins.
Virginia Tech shoots 36 percent from behind the arc, averaging seven made per game. It connected on 18 3-pointers in those two wins against Miami.
Senior Jarell Eddie scored 24 points in the first victory. Freshman Devin Wilson collected 12 points and nine assists in the second matchup. He is second in the conference amongst rookies in assists per game.
"For me it’s a lot of motivation because James Johnson’s one of my former assistants," Larranaga said. "He was playing all man-to-man defense and running and gunning early, and now they’re playing like us, very conservatively.
"They’re a 3-point shooting team. That’s one of the things that has given us problems. Their players are really suited for playing against the zone. We’ve got to figure a way to stop them."
If Miami should do so, it would face seventh-seeded N.C. State on Thursday. It has advanced to the next round in four straight years.
Since a 2-7 start to ACC play, the Hurricanes have gone 5-4. They went from a 39.5 field-goal percentage to 42.9. Instead of averaging just 55.6 points per game, they ramped it up to 62.8.
Yet in close games (five points or less and overtime), Miami finished 0-5 against conference foes and 3-4 overall. That included losses to then-No. 2 Syracuse on the road and then-No. 25 Pittsburgh at home.
"Just over the season we would lose a lot of tough games — and to be resilient — to be able to come back the next night and be able to win another game or win another close one shows a lot about this team," graduate guard Garrius Adams said.
Adams, who is the only Miami player to start all 31 games this season, missed last year’s Sweet 16 run with a knee injury. He turned in his best performance on Senior Night, scoring a career-high 22 points.
After not starting through the first nine ACC games, senior forward Erik Swoope has done so eight times. Swoope, who regularly puts up highlight-reel dunks, has been in double-digit points the past five games.
Senior guard Rion Brown, who was named to the All-ACC third team, has averaged 16.1 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.7 assists in 35.6 minutes per game in ACC play.
Brown ended the season as the ACC’s eighth-best scorer, seventh in field goal percentage, eighth in 3-point percentage, tied for eighth in 3-pointers made per game and ninth in minutes played. The seventh option last season, he improved his point total by 6.3 (third-best in the league).
"With this team we’ve played so many close games the coaches were constantly tinkering with either the offense and defense and the lineup," Larranaga said. "That’s not what a coach wants to do. He wants to find a good lineup, good rotation, good defense, good offense and just run it. But with so many circumstances this year we couldn’t do that. I’m very proud."
Miami has used nine starting lineups this season, and every scholarship player except Justin Heller has started at least seven games.
Shane Larkin surprised Larranaga by leaving school early for the NBA draft. Two transfers, Sheldon McClellan and Angel Rodriguez, had to sit out per NCAA rules. Two freshmen, Corn Elder and Deandre Burnett, were redshirted because of injuries.
With just nine scholarship players, a lack of depth proved to be an issue.
"We’ve been a team with a lot of highs and lows," Brown said. "When we were winning the game (on Saturday) we were upbeat, laughing, joking. It’s just a good feel and atmosphere. Carrying that into the ACC Tournament is great because it’s always fun up there. You enjoy that. That’s what you live for: a week of basketball. All you have to do is play basketball (with) games every day. We’re definitely enjoying that and look forward to it.
"We’re just looking forward to taking the next step at the ACC tournament. There’s been a lot of highs and lows but we’re definitely looking to end on a high note."