Miami went 2-1 in a rough stretch to get back to .500 in ACC play and set up for a big run over lesser competition, but in the process lost a key player. In the 3-game span, the Canes faced 3 teams that are projected as of today to make the NCAA Tournament, and won 2 of those games, despite 2 of the 3 games coming on the road. The stretch started with a big win in Raleigh, over NC State where the Canes shot well. They followed that up with an overtime home win over Louisville in a game in which the Canes finally played strong defense. Unfortunately, they were unable to make it 3 in a row with an overtime road loss in Tallahassee, featuring the best 3-point shooting performance in Canes’ history, but where they failed to play any defense. Overall, the Canes are now mired in a logjam in the middle of the ACC and this is the time to make up some ground.
Things were looking up overall, when the Canes received devastating injury news. Bruce Brown was injured in practice, had surgery, and is potentially out 6 weeks. That timeline puts him back around the NCAA Tournament.
The player that emerged over that 3-game stretch who will definitely need to continue to improve in Brown’s absence is Lonnie Walker. The freshman showed up big time and is now established as clearly the best player on the team. The Canes will continue to look to him as the season progresses. Beyond Walker, Sam Waardenburg is now in the rotation, and DJ Vasiljevic finally broke out of his 3-point shooting slump. A critical stretch starts this week with a home game against Pittsburgh and a road trip to Virginia Tech.
Wednesday, January 31st, 7pm, ACC Network/Watch ESPN
Pittsburgh has clearly established themselves as the worst team in the ACC, and coach Kevin Stallings is on borrowed time. Pitt is winless in the ACC this year, last won a game on December 22nd against Towson, and are coming in on a 9-game losing streak.
This is the 2nd meeting for the Canes and Panthers, and Miami coasted to victory in the first meeting, winning by 14 in a game that wasn’t that close. And Pitt has gotten weaker since then with their best player, Ryan Luther, being ruled out for the year. Pitt across the board has terrible numbers both offensively and defensively. Absent Luther, the Panthers have only 2 players averaging in double-figures, barely, and overall possess no real threats.
As bad as the Panthers have been, they’ve been even worse on the road, failing to keep any road ACC games within single digits. This is a must win and should be an easy one for the Canes, even with Brown.
Saturday, February 3, 2:00 PM, ESPN
In this critical 4-game stretch where the Canes need to make up ground, this game in Blacksburg is definitely the most difficult. The Hokies are 4-4 in ACC play, and travel to Boston College on Wednesday before hosting the Canes on Saturday. Overall, Virginia Tech is 15-6, with one “bad” loss, to St. Louis. Their best wins are a home win against North Carolina and a road victory in South Bend.
The Hokies are an uptempo, offensive team that scores in bunches, shares the ball well, and does not play much defense. In terms of the style of team in relation to what the Canes have faced, the Hokies are most similar to Florida State, and the Canes will need to avoid getting into the type of back and forth shootout they played in Tallahassee last week. Virginia Tech is 14th in the country in scoring and assists, at 85.1 PPG and 17.6 APG, respectively. But defensively, they allow almost 73 PPG, which is good for 200th nationally. They also rebound poorly, so hopefully when the Canes do get stops, second chance points will be limited.
Virginia Tech largely features a 6-man rotation, with 5 players averaging in double-figures. Ahmed Hill, Justin Bibbs, Kerry Blackshear Jr., Justin Robinson, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker all average between 11 and 15 PPG, so there is not much to choose from between the 5 and the Canes can’t focus on just one or two players. To make matters worse, all 5 players shoot well from 3, ranging from 37% on the lower range to 48% on the upper range, all while attempting at least 27 threes. Miami will need to guard and limit open shots.
But the Canes will also have to score well. Out of Virginia Tech’s 6 losses, 3 came when they allowed over 90 points. If Miami can play offense at a reasonable level, and bring a modicum of defense, this game is winnable.
Miami should have no problems whatsoever with Pittsburgh, although this team tends to make a lot of things difficult. Still, this is the last easy game Miami plays this year so give me the Canes by 17.
Going on the road to Virginia Tech is a tough ask, as the Hokies appear to be hitting their groove right now. Miami has lost its ability to play consistently good defense, and that usually causes problems in road games. This would be a very, very big win if Miami can pull it out, but until they find some success on the road, I can’t pick them to win. Hokies by 7.
Pitt is awful. Even without Brown, this should be an easy win as long as Miami focuses and competes. I don’t really think much analysis is needed here. Canes by 11.
And this is where not having Brown is really going to hurt, especially on the defensive end. Regardless of whether Lykes or DJ replaces Brown, there will be a huge defensive drop-off. And Virginia Tech can shoot at every position. The fact that the Hokies struggled with Syracuse means we might see big lineups with zone, with both DJ and Lykes on the bench, and Amp slide to the 3 with Huell and Izundu at the 4 and 5. But at this point when you’re going on the road, fumbling with rotations against a good team, it’s hard to see a win. Virginia Tech by 3.