At Duke. At Florida State. North Carolina at home. Florida State at home.
It was easy to motivate the University of Miami men’s basketball team the past few weeks with four games in a row against high-profile opponents. The exciting stretch of games began with an upset of then-No. 2 Duke on the road and ended Saturday with a heartbreaking — but thrilling — one-point loss to FSU in front of the first home sellout crowd in four years.
Now comes a different kind of challenge. The Hurricanes, who share the ACC top spot with FSU at 6-2, must try not to overlook upcoming back-to-back road games against 13th-place ACC team Virginia Tech and last-place Georgia Tech.
Miami plays the Hokies (10-9, 2-6) Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Cassell Coliseum and then plays the Yellow Jackets (8-10, 1-6) Saturday at noon in Atlanta.
“That’s the whole key to playing and coaching in the ACC, there’s no nights off, no game you can look past,” UM coach Jim Larranaga said. “I keep repeating, it’s a marathon. You can’t slow down in the middle of a marathon and expect to finish strong. People will be bypassing you one game after another.”
Hurricanes assistant coach D.J. Irving is confident UM’s veteran team will not suffer a letdown. The roster includes five sixth-year seniors, and their maturity is a big reason the team has not folded when down or been rattled in clutch moments.
“Because we’ve got so many veteran guys that have been around so long — I’m not really worried about that. These guys are mature,” Irving said. “Most of these guys are a year away from being professionals. They’re already acting like professionals. So, they know what we’ve got to do going into the next game.”
The recent games between Miami and Virginia Tech have gone down to the final minutes.
Two of the last three meetings went to overtime — including a triple-overtime Miami road win on Feb. 19, 2020, in which Isaiah Wong had 27 points and 12 rebounds.
Larranaga and Irving say Virginia Tech is better than its record, and its frontcourt is as dangerous as any in the ACC.
Redshirt senior Keve Aluma, who made second-team all-conference last year, is averaging 15.7 points and 6.8 rebounds. Grad student Justyn Mutts averages 10.1 points and 7.1 rebounds.
“I think they’re really good,” Larranaga said of the Hokies. “Keve Aluma and Justyn Mutts are an absolutely fantastic 1-2 combination inside. They both can stretch the defense and take you outside. They’re first in the league in defending the three and first in the league in three-point percentage, so it’s a very challenging combination. And playing at Tech is one of the toughest places to play. Their fans are very rabid.”
UM’s only two losses since the end of November were by one point to FSU, which gives Larranaga reason to be optimistic heading into the rest of the ACC schedule.
“These games are one-point games, one possession, one decision, one shot and Florida State is a heck of a basketball team,” Larranaga said. “They have four guys over 7 feet and we’re probably the smallest team in the ACC. The way I look at it is, we played a great second half (against the Seminoles), we had a great crowd, first time sold out in years. We’re in the ACC, which I consider the best league in the country, even if the experts don’t. Those guys are wrong a lot. They picked us 12th, so I feel pretty good right now.”