Good signs for UM basketball after victory over Duke, Virginia

Coach Jim Larrañaga addresses the media about the state of the team during a press conference after the win against Western Carolina University Friday night. Josh White // Staff Photographer

Miami strikes again. Five days after taking down No. 18 Virginia on the road, the Miami Hurricanes grinded out a gritty 55-50 win against No. 10 Duke. With the Canes playing their best ball of the season heading into March, let’s see what we can take from their most recent, big win.

Ja’Quan Newton’s suspension might have been a blessing

Miami came into this season looking for Newton to blossom from a spark plug off the bench into a lead starting-guard. Most of the season, results were mixed as Newton paced the team in assists but also in turnovers. The way the Hurricanes have played during his suspension has suggested that his absence might have unlocked the best version of the team. While Bruce Brown, Davon Reed and Anthony Lawrence may not have Newton’s off-the-bounce juice, they represent more deliberate, stable playmakers who have combined for 31 assists over the three-game span. Huge props to Coach Jim Larrañaga, who rightfully saw the way his team was playing and didn’t mess with it – bringing Newton off the bench in his return against the Blue Devils. He didn’t have a great game, shooting just 3–10 and turning the ball over four times with no assists, but a return to a sixth-man role gives Miami a veteran scorer off the bench who can come in for eight to 12 minutes in each half. Newton is exactly the type of player who can be more efficient and effective in fewer minutes, so I commend Coach L for sticking to an obviously-superior starting unit and Newton for playing hard even though he lost his starting spot.

Bruce Brown has grown up fast, and he’s taken the Hurricanes with him

Coming into this year, the preseason polls had Miami finishing in the lower-middle range of the ACC. Possibly pushing toward a seed in the high teens in the NCAA Tournament was considered the best case scenario. With an influx of talent on the way, next year was supposed to be the year to contend. Well, Bruce Brown has accelerated that timeline. Brown’s emergence as a star has elevated the rest of the roster into a unit that has a shot to finish in the top five of the ACC. In a conference where almost every other game is against a top-25 team, you need a guy who can play the best when the pressure is the highest, and Brown has consistently saved his most spectacular efforts for top opponents. His 25 points against Duke nearly tripled the production of his next highest teammate, Davon Reed, who finished with nine points. Brown said postgame, “I’ve been playing in big-time games my whole life, in AAU and high school, so I don’t think it affects the way I play at all. I played the same way I play every game.” You can just see the fire with this guy, like when he scored Miami’s first seven points, and he was shouting and pumping his fist in gritty determination as he got back on defense. With the rest of the squad filling its roles admirably and continuing to improve due to the excellent work of Larrañaga and his staff, the Hurricanes are one of the most surprising teams in the conference.

Larrañaga has the recipe for March magic

Sure, offense can take you far, but in the college game, it’s hard to depend on youngsters to fill it up every game. You never want to be one off-shooting night away from an early exit, which is why defensive-oriented teams tend to make deep runs in the tournament more frequently than offensive-focused teams. Larrañaga, who famously coached Cinderella story George Mason to the 2006 Final Four, has a history of leading overachieving teams because he preaches defense. Yes, Duke didn’t have Grayson Allen, but it isn’t like it is devoid of talent without him, and the Canes limited the Blue Devils to 32 percent shooting while holding top scorers Luke Kennard and Jayson Tatum under 30 percent. That’s how Miami, despite only shooting 38 percent themselves, was able to pull out the win. In March, if your team can turn every game into a rock fight, at the very least, you’ll have a chance in the final minutes. It’s not difficult to envision a scenario where Miami makes a second-consecutive Sweet 16 appearance, and with a shot to go deeper. That would have been crazy to say even a month ago, but the Hurricanes are hitting their stride. Now, let’s see just how far they can run.