CORAL GABLES, Fla. — The calendar officially flips to March on Friday. Nobody needs to tell the Miami Hurricanes what that means.
The Hurricanes understand the next four weeks will determine if they forever will be known as a nice regular-season story for 2012-13, or if they’ll go in the books as something truly special.
Miami ended its February slate with a 76-58 rout of Virginia Tech on Wednesday night at the BankUnited Center. The fifth-ranked Hurricanes (23-4, 14-1) cruised after building a 19-point halftime lead.
Both teams looked sloppy most of the first half, and Miami certainly benefited from facing the Atlantic Coast Conference’s last-place Hokies (12-16, 3-12).
Bottom line: The Hurricanes took care of business following a 15-point loss at Wake Forest on Saturday and after entering the game as heavy favorites.
“It was an important game. A lot of people were going to see how we were going to react to the game at Wake Forest and how we would respond to a loss like that,” said sophomore guard Shane Larkin, who scored a game-high 22 points. “I think we came out and imposed our will early.”
Not exactly. Miami clung to a 15-14 lead more than 12 minutes into the game. The Hurricanes then worked on going inside for some layups or fouls and resulting free throws — plus a Trey McKinney Jones 3-pointer — to build a 29-16 cushion 4:14 before halftime.
Virginia Tech failed to get closer than 16 points in the second half and trailed by as many as 25 points.
Such games for Miami figure to be non-existent going forward, with the possible exception of Wednesday’s home game against Georgia Tech. After all, surprising Cinderellas and low seeds in league championships and the NCAA Tournament have given March Madness its name.
“We’ve been wanting this,” said senior forward Kenny Kadji, who had 20 points. “Everybody wanted to go to the tournament, and we’ve been waiting for the postseason. So nobody is surprised March is here. If anything, there’s more excitement.”
That certainly will be the case Saturday at Duke, where the Cameron Crazies will want revenge for a 27-point loss at Miami on Jan. 23. The Hurricanes hold a 2.5-game lead over the second-place Blue Devils, and a victory would give UM its first basketball conference title, regular-season or tournament.
“It’s just another game on the schedule,” said a smiling Larkin, drawing laughter from Kadji, McKinney Jones and the entire media room.
McKinney Jones was a bit more honest.
“If we can go into Duke, one of the traditional powerhouses in college basketball and one of the best teams in the ACC every single year, and clinch,” the senior guard said, “that would be an amazing experience and add another special moment to an already special season.”
This March could be truly special for the Hurricanes, who figure to earn a high seed in the NCAA Tournament following the ACC tournament.
Miami coach Jim Larranaga knows the March microscope can be both a help and a hindrance for a team.
“It’s kind of easier to keep the players’ attention at times, but then it’s very easy to be distracted by all the periphery,” Larranaga said. “The whole thing is managing your thoughts. Where is your mindset right now?
“You’re not going to play your best every night. Some nights, like tonight, we were able to get ahead and get a comfortable lead. And then sometimes you relax, thinking the game is over, and that’s not a good mindset. You gotta keep playing hard.”