CORAL GABLES (CBSMiami/AP) — If preparing for the NCAA Tournament means facing the toughest opponents late in the season, the University of Miami Men’s Basketball Team will be as ready as anyone.
Hurricanes coach Jim Larranaga need not worry his players might be looking past this weekend’s game to Monday night, when they host No. 7 Virginia.
The Hurricanes pledge to take it one showdown at a time.
No. 11 Miami faces four consecutive league games against ranked teams over a 12-day span beginning Saturday at No. 5 North Carolina. The Hurricanes and Tar Heels are tied for first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference at 10-3, with Virginia third at 10-4.
“Our game Saturday is for first place,” Larranaga said Thursday. “Our game on Monday could be for first place. Then the game the following Saturday could be for first place. And then the game the next Wednesday could be for first place. But only if you win.
“These are very challenging games, but ones you look forward to.”
The Hurricanes (21-4 overall) forged a tie for first Wednesday night, when they beat Virginia Tech and North Carolina lost to Duke.
“It feels good, but not great,” senior guard Angel Rodriguez said. “There are a lot of games left, a lot of tough games for us and for everybody in the conference. We can be in first place now, but if we don’t do what we’re supposed to do, we can finish in fifth place, literally. It’s that close.”
The Hurricanes have won five in a row, have a 5-3 road record in the league and aren’t inclined to make too much of their first trip to Chapel Hill in two years.
“It’s sort of just another game,” Rodriguez said. “I know we’re tied for first place, but we’ve got to treat it like any other game and not let anything else get in our heads. You’ve got to play defense and put the ball in the basket.”
Miami expects to benefit from the return of sixth man Ja’Quan Newton, who missed Wednesday’s game because of an unspecified medical issue. He was cleared to practice Thursday.
The Hurricanes were 2-16 against North Carolina before Larranaga became coach in 2011. He has gone 4-3 against the Tar Heels, and won the past two visits to Chapel Hill — two and three years ago.
But Rodriguez has never played there, and leading scorer Sheldon McClellan is 0-1 at Carolina, losing in 2011 when he was a freshman with Texas.
“The year I played there they had Harrison Barnes,” McClellan said. “We lost pretty bad, so the crowd wasn’t really into it. I guess they thought it was a boring game. But the fans know what is at stake Saturday. We’ve got to be ready.”
Larranaga has been going against the Tar Heels since the 1970s, when he was an assistant coach. He’s 5-4 against them as a head coach but has probably lost more than he has won competing with them in recruiting.
One example: Tar Heels starting guard Joel Berry II. He was a high school junior in Apopka, Florida, when he decided to attend North Carolina.
“Joel Berry was our primary target,” Larranaga said. “We started recruiting him when he was in the 10th grade, and we worked very, very hard for the next two years. I was happy at least he made an early decision, and we didn’t have to spend another year and half recruiting him to find out he was still going to Carolina.”
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