Casual college basketball fans may do a double-take if they check the ACC men’s standings this week. Sitting alone on top is the University of Miami, followed by Florida State University. Basketball bluebloods Duke and North Carolina are in third and fourth place.
In the past two weeks the unranked Hurricanes beat then-No. 2 Duke on the road and routed the Tar Heels at home by 28 points. The unranked Seminoles knocked off No. 6 Duke by one point in overtime on Tuesday.
FSU coach Leonard Hamilton likes to categorize his team as the “newbloods” and that moniker fits the Hurricanes this season, as well. Miami has won 10 of its past 11 games, the only blemish a one-point loss at FSU after a debatable call.
National buzz has been building around both teams, and an ESPN audience will get a chance to see the UM-FSU rematch Saturday at 2 p.m. The Canes drew their biggest home crowd of the season for the North Carolina game and an even larger, more boisterous crowd is expected at the Watsco Center on Saturday.
It is the biggest Miami-Florida State game in recent memory – maybe ever – as both teams seek national recognition and a spot in the Top 25. UM, which was picked 12th in the ACC preseason poll, is 14-4 overall and 6-1 in the conference. FSU is 12-5 and 5-2 in the ACC.
“For the first time in a very long time—ever since I can remember—the two Florida schools are one-two in the ACC right now,” UM coach Jim Larrañaga said. “It doesn’t mean we’ll end the season that way, but we would love for our fans to turn out, knowing what a big game this is on Saturday.”
UM players are salivating for the chance to play the Seminoles again and avenge the heartbreaking loss in Tallahassee. In that game, UM point guard Charlie Moore hit a go-ahead three-pointer with seven seconds left, but FSU guard RayQuan Evans made two free throws with 0.8 left to give the Seminoles the win.
“Guys are very hungry for this next one,” said sixth-year senior Sam Waardenburg, who scored a career-high 21 points against UNC. “We played very hard up at FSU, put ourselves in a great position to win that game, but coming into this guys are very hungry and Coach will give us a great gameplan and we have to execute. Florida State’s very good right now, hungry’s the word.”
Guard Isaiah Wong added: “We have a little grudge we need to get off our chests.”
FSU is among the tallest teams in the nation, which presents a matchup issue for the undersized Hurricanes. Larrañaga and his staff have compensated for the team’s lack of size by implementing a scrambling defense that forces turnovers.
So far, the strategy is working.
UM had 15 steals against Duke and forced the Blue Devils into a season-high 17 turnovers. The Canes had 10 steals against UNC and the Tar Heels had 14 turnovers, which Miami converted into 30 points. It was the fourth consecutive game the Hurricanes have posted double-digit steals.
“I give a lot of credit to my coaches,” Larrañaga said of the defensive success. “(Last) summer, we spent a lot of time talking about our roster and what our strengths and weaknesses were. We realized very quickly that we’re not a big, strong, physical team with a lot of bulk and back-to-the-basket-type players. The ACC is full of guys that are really good in around the basket…skillful and big, 240 or bigger.
“So, we decided that we would need to scramble more, meaning (we would) trap, rotate, front the post and do a lot of things to try to disrupt the opponent and force more turnovers because our weakness was going to be our defensive rebounding. We wanted to try to force turnovers to counteract that. We’ve been able to do that so far in ACC play.”