CORAL GABLES, Fla. (AP) — When the season began, the Miami Hurricanes’ man-to-man defense was so bad that coach Jim Larranaga ordered his team to play zone for an entire game, something he had never done before.
Larranaga has been a head coach since 1977.
Dismal defense demands desperate deviation.
“I saw us giving up a lot of easy baskets in our man-to-man and decided, ‘It doesn’t look like this is going to be our bread-and-butter defense,'” Larranaga said. “It was kind of out of necessity.”
The switch might make the defending Atlantic Coast Conference champions a force in the league again this year. Miami (9-6, 1-2) is coming off a victory last week at North Carolina and plays host to Florida State (11-4, 2-1) on Wednesday.
After losing the top six players from last season’s team, Miami was projected to be second-division fodder in 2014. But while Larranaga concedes his young Hurricanes are offensively challenged, they’ve allowed 60 points or less in the past nine games, winning six.
“It gives us a lot of confidence going forward that our defense can win games,” senior guard Rion Brown said.
The zone is liable to be stretched by the Seminoles, who sank 16 of 24 3-pointers in a victory Sunday over Maryland.
“If they’re shooting it like they did against Maryland, no one will beat them,” Larranaga said. “They were awesome.”
The Seminoles average 74 points per game, and Larranaga figures the Hurricanes must keep opponents in the 50s or 60s to have a chance to win.
Even that might not be enough. Playing at No. 2-ranked Syracuse on Jan. 4, the Hurricanes led until the final four minutes and lost 49-44.
Miami held both Syracuse and North Carolina more than 22 points below their scoring average. That was a big improvement over early in the season, when the Hurricanes lost to St. Francis Brooklyn and needed an overtime to beat Georgia Southern.
One month into the season, Larranaga had seen enough and decided to switch to a zone. That was a watershed change for the 64-year-old coach — not that he was philosophically opposed to zone defenses.
“It’s just what you know and you’re comfortable with,” he said.
Because Larranaga had little experience with the zone, he sought the advice of former coaches Ralph Willard and Bernie Fine, who paid visits to Coral Gables. With that, the Hurricanes received a crash course in the defense.
“The guys have done a good job of listening and learning,” Larranaga said.
Larranaga said he’s learning about it, too. He moved freshman guard Davon Reed into the starting lineup, giving the Hurricanes more length on the perimeter.
“With Davon, the three guys at the top of the zone are all 6-6 with long arms,” Brown said. “That’s tough out there trying to pass or shoot over.”
Syracuse shot 36 percent, and North Carolina shot 31 percent. But as Larranaga noted, there are many more challenges to come.
After playing Florida State, Miami travels to Georgia Tech, then faces No. 23 Duke and a rematch against Syracuse.
“We’ll know by the end of January what kind of defensive team we have,” Larranaga said. “If we are really good, that will give us a chance to win a bunch of games in February.”
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