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Miami could make moves in the ACC

January 30, 2012 Columns No Comments

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. – Miami couldn’t seem to shake Boston College no matter what they did. They led often, but the game was played within a ten-point window even as the Hurricanes were doing a better job of defending the young Eagles as the game wore on. Suddenly, with the game tied at 49, all that changed, as the Hurricanes went on a 14-0 run and turned what was a close game into a 76-54 rout. It all went right with what head coach Jim Larranaga has preached to this team.

“I thought our guys stayed very poised,” said Larranaga, currently in his first season at the school. “Early in the season, we tended to go our own way and tried to do it on our own. Tonight, I thought we stuck with some things and were able to fight through it, and our defense got better as the game progressed. They were at 49 for a long time.”

In fact, Boston College went over three minutes without scoring, and never got another field goal. They shot 35 percent in the second half after shooting over 42 percent in the first half, and turnovers were once again a problem. In the meantime, Miami turned the ball over just five times on the afternoon, the second straight game with a single digit figure in that column.

Miami was a mixed bag early in the season. They won their first four games, then lost four of the next five in part from playing tougher opponents and having to go on the road a few times. At 5-4, they got back big man Reggie Johnson, who suffered a knee injury last summer, and he has certainly made a difference.

“Reggie’s made a huge difference for a number of different reasons,” said Larranaga.

Johnson hasn’t been a dominant force at either end of the floor, nor has he posted eye-popping numbers. But since he has returned, a lot of the Hurricanes have benefited. Alongside him, Kenny Kadji is perhaps the biggest beneficiary, averaging 17.1 points and 6.6 rebounds per game since Johnson’s return. Larranaga noted that Johnson now guards the biggest opponent, which allows Kadji more freedom at both ends. On the perimeter, Durand Scott and Rion Brown have seen their percentages make a big jump, with Scott shooting just over 30 percent before his return and over 51 percent since.

Most of all, the team has benefited as they are 7-3, and have gone from being out-rebounded to out-rebounding opponents. Johnson isn’t all the way back physically as of yet. While he’s healthy, he’s still not in the kind of game shape most players are by this season, and he wasn’t in the best shape even before the injury. But the effect his return has had is clear.

Another player who has helped others is freshman point guard Shane Larkin. The son of baseball Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin, he has moved into the starting lineup and made life easier for Scott and Malcolm Grant. Larkin is a good defender as well, and putting him alongside Scott and Grant gives them three ball handlers to start the game. Scott admirably played the point for a lot of his first two years for a guy who isn’t natural at the position, but Larranaga likes making his and Grant’s life easier.

“Quite frankly, ball handling wears you out,” said Larranaga. “Having three ball handlers sharing the ball, sharing the responsibility, definitely helps.”

“We really don’t go by positions. We just go out there and try to play,” said Scott, who had 19 points, six rebounds and four assists on Sunday. “Coach knows what’s best, he put him at the point for a reason, and I trust him putting him at the point and me at the 2. The last couple of games, we got wins, so how can I complain about that?”

There’s a lot of room to maneuver in the ACC aside from what appears to be a clear top four teams. Based on play thus far, the top four looks to be some combination of Duke, Florida State, North Carolina and Virginia. After that, though, there’s a drop-off, and places 5-12 in the standings could go a number of ways. In the mix are teams like Clemson, Maryland, Miami, NC State and Virginia Tech. All of those teams have things to like about them, but none will bowl you over. Based on how Miami has played since Johnson’s return, they would be as good a pick to get into the top half as anyone.

Of the Hurricanes’ remaining 10 ACC contests, six are at home. That’s a plus, and of the four teams that project to be at the top, they have as many games on the road against them as at home (two each). If they continue to buy into the ideas of defense and taking care of the ball, Sunday’s decisive run may turn out to be a microcosm of the season. They certainly have the personnel with which to do that.

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