The Canes struggled in Hawaii, but still managed to escape with a 2-1 record. The first Miami loss of the season dropped them from 6th to 15th in national polls. The Canes opened the tournament by playing a poor first half against Hawaii, before catching fire in the second half, clamping down on defense, and eventually winning by 18.
Miami also started slow against New Mexico State, but tipping off less than 17 hours after the Hawaii game, the Canes just never got it going. They did, however, battle hard in the last 10 minutes, and nearly erased a late 9-point deficit, twice cutting it to 1-point, including with less than a minute left. But with the shot clock winding down, NMSU threw up a miracle 3-pointer from that went down, all but ending the game. NMSU pulled away from there and won by 9. The real culprit for the Canes was just poor play across the board, shooting 34% from the field, 11% from the 3-point line, and having only 4 assists to 14 turnovers.
Miami finished the tournament in the 3rd place game against Middle Tennessee State. MTSU jumped the Canes early, building a 13-point lead early half way through the first half. But unlike against NMSU, the Canes immediately responded strong, outscoring MTSU by 18 points the rest of the half. In the 2nd half, MTSU kept hanging around and the Canes struggled to shake them. MTSU took the lead on multiple occasions in the 2nd half, including with under 4 minutes left. But the Canes made consecutive buckets, including a massive 3-pointer from Amp Lawrence, to go up by 3, and never trailed again. DJ Vasiljevic all but ended the game with a 3-pointer with under 90 seconds left and the Canes escaped with a 2-point victory in an uncharacteristically high scoring game. There was one scary moment for the Canes, when Lonnie Walker tweaked his left knee, but on Twitter, he indicated he was good to go:
While the tournament was overall not the result the Canes wanted, what they did manage to do was shoot well from the FT line. They also faced real adversity for the first time, and hopefully those 2 things pay off this week when ACC play starts.
Saturday, December 30,4:00 PM, ESPN3/ACC Network
Miami opens ACC play against Pitt. Kevin Stallings’ tenure at Pitt has not gone the way anyone anticipated. After a successful stint at Vanderbilt, Stallings took over for Jamie Dixon. Last year, the Panthers went 16-17, but were hoping to improve this year. Those hopes were dashed early when Pitt lost 4 of their first 5 games, with losses to Navy, Montana, Penn State and Oklahoma State. 2 of those 4 were at a neutral site, with the Navy and Montana losses coming at home. Pitt has recovered from there to win 7 of 8 games, although they did lose to by far the best team they played in that stretch, by 9 at home to West Virginia. Overall, Pitt is 8-5, and they don’t have a quality win. This record is despite essentially being the antithesis of Miami in terms of location scheduling. The closest Miami will come to playing a home game over a month span from early December to early January is a road game in Atlanta against Georgia Tech. Meanwhile, Pitt has only ventured away from home once since a pair of games in New York early in the season, and that game was at Duquesne, which is also in Pittsburgh, so it wasn’t much of a trip.
The Panthers really struggle as a team. They don’t shoot well at all ranking 190th in the country in FG% and 214th in 3PT%. They also don’t rebound well, ranking 196th. But their struggles are probably most epitomized by their point differential, as they average only a point per game more than they allow. For an 8-5 team, you would expect much better, which essentially means their 8-5 record is probably flattering.
The big question mark for the Panthers is whether Ryan Luther will play this week. Luther is a 6-9 senior, averages a double-double, and is definitely Pitt’s best player. He had a stress reaction a few weeks ago and was unlikely to play against Miami at the time. But the latest reports indicate he might try to give it a go. Outside of Luther, Jared Wilson-Frame is the Panthers go to guy, and from there, they spread the ball around. There are a couple of weapons to look out for in Marcus Carr and Khameron Davis from 3. But, neither of those players average over 30 MPG, and if Luther does not play, we’re likely to see a lot of minutes extended as the Panthers try to replace Luther’s production. And while scoring will get the focus, Luther’s over 10 RPG is by far Pitt’s best, and Miami’s task will be a lot easier in that regard if he does not play.
Overall, the Canes big issue will be overcoming fatigue. There is a 5-hour time difference between Pittsburgh and Hawaii, the Canes played 3 games in 4 days in an odd time zone, and haven’t been home in a month. Pitt, meanwhile, hasn’t left Pittsburgh since November and has been off since December 22nd. Miami has played 3 games since Pitt last played. If Miami can overcome all that, they are definitely the better team here.
In the grand scheme of things, traveling to Hawaii, playing tough games against pretty good competition and facing adversity will probably mean more to the success of the Canes this year than the actual loss to New Mexico State. The good and bad news is that we are now to conference play, and the quick turnaround means no matter the opponent, this game will be tough. It just happens to be on the road against Pittsburgh, one of the least difficult teams the Canes will face in the ACC this year. There’s no such thing as a “bad loss” on the road in the ACC this year, but at the same time, this would count as a “good win” since all road wins fall into that category. Hopefully the Canes have somewhat adjusted back to the Eastern Time Zone by the time this one tips off, because that’s really the only way I see Miami not winning this game. Miami wins by 7.
Miami got off to a slow start the last 3 games, after doing the opposite in Washington, DC against GW. The most important in this game is to start strong and not let Pitt into the game. Fortunately, a December 30th game will likely not be as intimidating an atmosphere. So if the Canes start well, it’s hard to imagine Pitt really responding. On the other hand, if the Canes are sluggish, then this could go really bad because we’ll have to see how Miami responds to all the travel. With that said, I really liked the way the whole team rallied against MTSU, and in particular we’re seeing Bruce Brown and Dewan Huell emerge as leaders. Those 2 players will combine to lift Miami in this game, and the Canes win by 11.