Hurricanes’ defense getting in the zone as ACC play ramps up

The Hurricanes do not have any returning starters from last year's squad, but lanky players like Garrius Adams (left) and Donnavan Kirk (22) have helped Miami's defense remain stingy.

Bob Donnan/Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

CORAL GABLES, Fla. — One month ago, University of Miami men’s basketball coach Jim Larranaga went against his 40 years of coaching experience.

After running a man-to-man defense at each place he worked — from Davidson College to George Mason University — Larranaga knew a change needed to be made when the Hurricanes started the season 5-5.

"I saw us giving up a lot of easy baskets and decided this wasn’t going to be our bread-and-butter defense," Larranaga said. "It was out of necessity."

Larranaga called Ralph Willard, a longtime assistant of Rick Pitino, for advice. Willard, who resides in Naples, spent a day with the team teaching zone fundamentals. Bernie Fine, a former associate head coach at Syracuse, drove down from Fort Lauderdale and worked one morning with Larranaga and his coaching staff.

The change in philosophy seems to have paid off.

After nearly handing undefeated Syracuse a loss Jan. 4, Miami (9-6, 1-2 ACC) rebounded to take down North Carolina for the fourth consecutive time.

Miami held the Orange (74 points per game) and the Tar Heels (79 PPG) to 49 and 57, respectively. UNC managed just 31 percent shooting (24 percent from 3-point range).

According to Larranaga, the Hurricanes rank near the top 30 nationally when it comes to points per possession allowed.

Seniors Rion Brown and Erik Swoope said the team has not played man-to-man since the Dec. 22 game against La Salle, and that lasted for only 2-3 minutes.

When Brown, freshman Davon Reed, graduates Donnavan Kirk and Garrius Adams and junior James Kelly start, the lineup consists of guys at least 6-foot-6. In Brown and Swoope’s opinion, the zone works well because of each player’s length and athleticism.

"We have confidence in our zone, so it gives us a lot of energy," Brown said. "We know we can stop people — it’s just a matter of executing our offense. … It definitely gives us confidence going forward that our defense can win games."

And the timing is eerily familiar.

The victory over North Carolina arrived two days before the one-year anniversary of the Hurricanes’ rewriting of Atlantic Coast Conference basketball history.

On Jan. 10, 2013, Miami arrived at the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C., and claimed its first 2-0 start in ACC play, besting UNC 68-59. It marked the third time overall and first since 2006 that the Hurricanes beat the Tar Heels.

Miami would rattle off 13 straight conference victories en route to becoming the first program outside the state of North Carolina to capture both the ACC regular season and tournament championships.

Fast forward to Jan. 8, 2014: The visiting Hurricanes — without a returning starter from last year’s Sweet 16 squad — still managed to upset UNC 63-57.

Larranaga remembers his son Jay being in disbelief when his father hadn’t yet made a decision to coach UM’s program. Jay reminded Jim how exciting it would be to try and outsmart the country’s top coaches at historic arenas.

" ‘It’s only fun if you can win,’ " Larranaga told his son. "That was my mindset. All this is about winning and trying to prepare your team to be the best it can be."

Entering Wednesday night’s ACC home opener against Florida State (11-4, 2-1 ACC), the Hurricanes continue to search for consistency.

In four of its six losses, Miami led late in the second half yet couldn’t finish down the stretch. The Hurricanes were able to correct that by holding off a pair of Tar Heel rallies.

"It’ll be a new test for some of the young guys," Swoope said. "They’re still getting used to the way the ACC works and how each team is radically different."

All but one of their 16 remaining games will be against ACC teams. Nine of those will take place at BankUnited Center, including Duke and Syracuse next week.

It’s an open conference race with only three undefeated teams left in the standings. Four of Miami’s first six games of 2014 are against teams ranked in the polls.

"I think we’ll know by the end of January what kind of defensive team we have," Larranaga said. "If we are really good that’ll give us a chance to win a bunch of games in February."

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