Wire-to-wire consistency was never an attribute Miami expected to have this year. Not with this team, which has used three different starting lineups, has nine active scholarship players, four of which are freshmen.
The Hurricanes started 11-2, opened January with a 1-4 stretch and have won three of their last four, including a home upset of No. 9 North Carolina.
“That’s youth,” coach Jim Larranaga said. “It’s about kids growing up and learning. That’s why veteran teams are so good.”
Starting with Wednesday’s game against Virginia Tech (9 p.m., ACC regional networks), Miami (15-7, 5-5 ACC) has three of its next four games at home, where it is 10-2 this year. Beginning with Saturday’s game at No. 4 Louisville (2 p.m., ESPN) the Hurricanes finish the regular season by playing five of seven games against teams currently ranked 18th or better.
So it stands to reason that, given how well Miami plays at home, these next three games (Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech next Wednesday, Clemson next Saturday) are prime chances for the Hurricanes to add to their NCAA tournament resume.
Larranaga wouldn’t entertain that thought.
“What you need to do is play well,” he said. “What we’re attempting to do is continue to tweak our offense to get more opportunities for us to put more points on the board … and we don’t want to slip defensively. It’s a see-saw.
“To find that nice balance is hard.”
Against the Hokies (16-6, 5-5), Miami would love for more of the same from its most consistent player, senior Davon Reed. He scored a career-high 26 points last Saturday at North Carolina State and did an exemplary job of bottling up star freshman Dennis Smith Jr., a potential lottery pick. Larranaga said Reed declared he would shut down Smith in the second half, and the coaching staff decided to make a defensive switch.
Smith was 6-for-6 at halftime seeing mostly Ja’Quan Newton, but went 4-for-9 in the second half with Reed, nearly five inches taller than Newton, marking him.
Another major reason for Miami’s 84-79 road win: career highs in points from forward Anthony Lawrence Jr. and center Ebuka Izundu, two sophomores the Hurricanes need beyond Reed (15.8 points), Newton (15.0) and freshman Bruce Brown (12.1, 6.5 rebounds).
Lawrence, who has averaged 31 minutes in his last four games, came in averaging 6.4 points but put up 19 on 7-of-9 shooting. He said he is working on his outside shooting — he went 3-for-5 — but he has to “not get glued to the three” and drive to the basket more.
Izundu, hampered by foul trouble for most of his young career, put up 16 points and six rebounds. For a player who averages a foul every five minutes of game action — a pace that often leaves him affixed to the bench — it was a major positive he gave Miami 27 minutes before fouling out.
Larranaga praised his offensive touch, and Miami will need more of it. In need of post scoring, coaches spent an early morning Monday working with Izundu, senior Kamari Murphy, and freshmen Rodney Miller and Dewan Huell.
Huell (6.5 points per game) is the top-scoring big man on a team that gets 73 percent of its scoring from guards. When they’re moving the ball (as Newton and Brown were Saturday) and shooting well (as Reed was), they can win on the road. When not, Miami’s lack of interior offense becomes even more of a sore spot.
The Hokies — an 8-seed in ESPN’s latest bracketology; Miami is an 11 — have strong guard play, but get a lot of offense from 6-7, 235-pound Zach LeDay (15.9 points, 6.6 boards) and sophomore Chris Clarke (11.6, 7.4), who plays way bigger than his size (6-6, 210).