Hurricanes taking flight, putting ACC basketball teams on notice

Guard Angel Rodriguez is averaging 22 points in the Hurricanes' ACC games.

Danny Wild/Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

CORAL GABLES, Fla. — There’s something magical about the metamorphosis of a butterfly leading up to its departure from the cocoon.

Over the course of history it has inspired a range of people from the ancient Egyptians to Native American Indians. Add University of Miami men’s basketball coach Jim Larranaga to the list.

It took a decade, but Larranaga brought back a lucky ritual he used with his Final Four George Mason squad.

At the start of this school year, he requested an order of 30 butterflies leading up to an upset over Florida. The players released them together at the top of the BankUnited Center steps, watching as they flew away — perhaps on a shared journey to Indianapolis for this season’s Final Four.

A self-proclaimed believer in signs, Larranaga doesn’t want to set goals too high. But he hopes his players can do what those butterflies did and achieve great things together.

”I think this group has a chance to do something really special whether it’s this year or next year,” Larranaga said. ”They’re getting better.”

This week could go a long way in cementing that statement.

Miami defeated No. 4 Duke 90-74 on Tuesday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium, snapping the Blue Devils’ 41-game home winning streak. It marked the most lopsided loss an unranked visitor has handed to a ranked Duke team in the Atlantic Coast Conference era.

The Hurricanes improved to 2-0 on the road against top-10 opponents. They also beat the Gators, who were ranked No. 7 at the time, on Nov. 17. Miami has won two road games against ranked opponents for the first time since 1998-99.

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”It really specifically has to do with the players and their personality and approach to road games,” Larranaga said of his road warriors. ”Our guys — guys like Angel Rodriguez and Manu Lecomte — they actually really look forward to going on the road and playing in those kind of confines. Shane Larkin was the same way, Durand Scott was the same way.”

The Hurricanes visit No. 12 Notre Dame on Saturday in another nationally televised game. On Jan. 3, they took undefeated Virginia to two overtimes before losing.

Rodriguez, who spent two seasons in the Big 12, visited the hostile venues at Kansas and Iowa State. His mentality hasn’t changed. If anything, it has grown more resilient. He paces the conference in scoring in ACC games with 22.0 points per game.

”I think you feel more challenged,” Rodriguez said of playing on the road. ”Every player should be like that. You shouldn’t shy away from the competition and adversity. You should fight it and try to overcome it as best you can. And that’s one of the best things about this team. We don’t shy away from anything. We use everything as motivation and we know how competitive the league is and how great the fan base a lot of schools have, so early in the season we overcame the Florida game and now we just went to Duke. It’s not going to get any easier, but we’ve done it before and it gives us tremendous confidence going into whatever environment we’re going to face.”

Lecomte admitted the team got ”turnt” after beating Duke, but once the Hurricanes landed back in Miami it was time to get ready for another top-15 team. Larranaga and his staff convened at his hotel room and immediately began focusing on the Notre Dame matchup.

After the rough stretch of four losses in six games towards the end of the fall semester and around the holidays, Lecomte said it is easy to see how much Miami has improved, particularly on defense.

Miami limited Duke to 43.9 percent shooting (28.6 percent from behind the arc) and just 39 points in the second half. The Hurricanes, meanwhile, shot 51.8 percent and tallied a staggering 56 points in the final 20 minutes.

Larranaga helps the players keep things in perspective, reminding them that the win at Duke still only counts as one game in the conference race. In the grand scheme of things, on their path to excellence, it is just one step.

”I know it’s hard to forget about the game, but if we want to play as hard as we did against Duke we got to stay focused,” Lecomte said. ”It’s a different team, they’re ranked. If we don’t play as hard as we did against Duke we’re not going to win this game.

”We improved. We learned from the losses, too. Not ranked teams, but we still lost. That’s what Coach L tells us all the time. It doesn’t mater who you play if they’re ranked or not. You’ve got to bring your ‘A’ game every time.”

You can follow Christina De Nicola on Twitter @CDeNicola13 or email her at cdenicola13@gmail.com.