Miami’s ACC hopes rest on defense, seniors; both on display vs. Florida

It has been a while since the annual early-season meeting between Miami and Florida was a game that the Hurricanes were expected to win, but this senior-laden team has much higher expectations than just winning its in-state rivalry game against the Gators.

Seniors accounted for 50 of Miami’s points in a 66-55 victory Tuesday night, led by Sheldon McClellan (24 points on 7-of-12 shooting) and Angel Rodriguez (17 points on 5-of-8 shooting). The strong shooting from those two helped Miami continue to score on a night when Florida, a good defensive team in its own right under first-year coach Mike White, held the Hurricanes to 39.2 percent shooting from the field.

It was a grinding game for Miami, a team that entered that expects to score in the 80s, with Florida making the Hurricanes work for every basket. The Gators turned it on with some full court pressure in the second half and were able to cut into the lead, but Rodriguez was too strong with the ball in his hands for it to turn the tide in what was basically a wire-to-wire win for Jim Larranaga’s team.

The thing that will make Miami’s coach particularly pleased about this win is that when the Hurricanes’ shots weren’t falling the seniors took control and the team won with defense. Florida averaged about .85 points per possession in the game, shot 38 percent from the field and struggled to gain an advantage inside against senior big man Tonye Jekiri, who passed Jimmy Graham for No. 10 on Miami’s career blocks list with three rejections in the game.

Before the season, Larranaga pointed that in order to win your league, you probably need to be in the top three of your league in KenPom’s defensive rating, and probably in the top 20 nationally. “That’s why Virginia has won the regular season the last two years because they’re so good defensively, so statistically good night in and night out,” he said at the ACC media day in October.

Larranaga had one team like that, and it did win the ACC, but with Kenny Kadju, Reggie Johnson and Julian Gamble down low.

“I don’t know if we’re big enough to be quite the defensive team that I’d like to be but we have a chance,” Larranaga added.

This Miami team doesn’t have that kind of size, but it’s got some great perimeter defenders in Rodriguez, McClellan and Davon Reed with Jekiri as the anchor down low.

Statistically, Miami’s not an elite defensive team yet. The Hurricanes entered the game ranked No. 61 nationally in defensive rating and seventh among ACC teams. But Larranaga is right that this team can be strong defensively without having the size of that ACC championship squad.

For Florida, this game was a good test for its defense, which has been fantastic so far this season. Most teams in the SEC won’t have the firepower of the Hurricanes but there is still plenty of room to improve offensively. Miami had to work hard for every bucket, it just has too much experience (and talented experience at that) to be shaken by the challenge.

Angel Rodriguez and Miami’s seniors scored 50 of the team’s 66 points against Florida. (USATSI)

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