Jim Larranaga is onto something.
Seven years after leading the ultimate Cinderella team to the Final Four, the 63-year-old Bronx native may have rediscovered the touch with the most talented team of his career down around South Beach. Miami is 5-0 in the ACC in Larranaga's second season, and the laundry list of teams the Hurricanes have taken down this season added the No. 1 team in the land Wednesday night.
Is there a way to say a 90-63 win was worse than it looks on paper?
Miami didn't just beat Duke. It stole the Blue Devils’ lunch money, then rode Coach K's bike home.
Miami has now beaten Michigan State, North Carolina, Maryland and Duke and is now squarely in the driver's seat of the conference — the Hurricanes are undefeated versus ACC opponents, while every other team has at least two losses. With a wide-open league already, which team is really going to make a run at deep roster featuring Shane Larkin, Kenny Kadji, Durand Scott and Reggie Johnson, each a double-digit scorer. No takers yet.
Larranaga's team at George Mason was the "it" story in sports after marching past Michigan State, North Carolina and UConn to come within two wins of a national title in Indianapolis. Sound familiar? All it takes is a matchup with UConn sometime this postseason and Larranaga's going to be throwing up The U all over Denzel Washington.
Oh, by the way, this group is much, much better.
KEEP AN EYE ON…
Otto Porter, Georgetown: The 6-foot-8 forward’s path to NBA scout’s radars has been featured plenty over the past two months, but his play on the court is speaking for itself. The sophomore leads John Thompson III’s team in points and rebounding, utilizing an advanced mid-range game (the lost art, they call it). Georgetown is 2-1 versus the AP top-25, and they’ll need Porter to continue to produce as Louisville comes to town.
Mike Muscala, Bucknell: The Patriot League was supposed to be the Bisons' to lose after Lehigh lost C.J. McCollum, primarily because Muscala, a 6-foot-11 senior and NBA prospect, produces all over the floor. He's averaging around 20 points per game, shooting more than 50 percent and rebounding at one of the highest rates in the country. That wasn't enough on Wednesday versus a shorthanded Lehigh, but Bucknell should be dancing come March and this double-double machine could be good for an upset or two.
THE FIFTH WATCH
North Carolina at N.C. State: This is a troublesome situation for the talented Wolfpack, a team which has all the high-end talent to do damage to any team but has tapered off defensively (156th nationally) and could be exposed much like they were versus Wake Forest earlier in the week. The Tar Heels have their own sets of problems, but they are clicking of late with solid wins over Florida State and Maryland. N.C. State is desperate, but could be wearing down. Pick: UNC
Maryland at Duke: Despite just having its lunch money stolen by Miami, Duke will still be in Maryland’s crosshairs. That comes with the territory. Mark Turgeon's team, led by athletic sophomore center Alex Len, gets the job done on the boards (43 per game) and could give a (possibly) undermanned Duke team some trouble in that regard. However, the Terps are not exactly (how should we put this) effective offensively, and the Blue Devils remain one of the most fundamentally sound defensive teams around. Cameron Indoor stays rockin'. Pick: Duke
Michigan State at Indiana: Tom Izzo is pulling out the sparkling new unis and shoes for this one, which should spark some energy after a grueling win at Wisconsin. On the other hand, how much better can one defend Cody Zeller in new shoes? Maybe ask Penn State. The athletic 7-footer, who is expected to be a lottery pick, is coming off his worst game of the season in a win over the Nittany Lions (two points). If Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne cannot find a similar way slow him down — we won't even get into the rest of the Hoosiers' deep lineup — those Hyperdunks will have to go back in the closet. Pick: Indiana
Michigan at Illinois: NBA scouts, have fun with this one. With Michigan coming to town, Illinois star Brandon Paul will get a premier tryout opposite the likes of Glenn Robinson III and Tim Hardaway Jr. Paul is averaging 18 points and 4.8 rebounds per game — and, you know, he can go off at any time — but he's struggled of late and he doesn't have near the supporting cast the Wolverines do. Even though they fell to Ohio State, the Wolverines are a top-tier offense with which the Fighting Illini should struggle to slow down. Pick Michigan
Kentucky at Ole Miss: This is where Kentucky can draw the line. At 12-6 in the standings and losing to the likes of Alabama and Texas A&M, the Wildcats are not nearly as bad as they've often appeared on the scoreboard, but at a certain point results need to show on the scoreboard. John Calipari's team still shuts squads down on the defensive end, thanks in large part to Nerlens Noel ( 4.2 blocks per game), but there is still little identity on the offensive end. The No. 23 Rebels could provide a quality win the Wildcats desperately need. Pick: Kentucky
THIS IS WHY…
John Calipari's coaching accomplishments to date are even more impressive in the light of this 2013 season.
In this day and age of college basketball, it seems foreign to watch a young Wildcats team stumble through a regular season that once showed so much promise — remember that preseason top-five billing? — but this is merely expected for most teams composed almost entirely of freshmen. Of course, writers and fans have grown so accustomed to Calipari bringing in top recruits then winning then sending them to the NBA that, often times, the difficulty of the entire ordeal is bypassed and overlooked. "Of course he won, he had all the best players," is an argument that should no longer be made, at least not in public where folks can judge you based on your sports knowledge.
What Coach Cal does is tough.
Last season's national title — even with the Nos. 1 and 2 picks in the NBA Draft — took coaching expertise.
At this point in the season, it's true, the Wildcats look like a bubble team. The six losses in 18 games speak for themselves. This is Calipari's worst offensive unit to date (33rd nationally in offensive efficiency, 18 spots lower than the 2010 team), and it stems largely frompoint guard play. In consecutive seasons, the Wildcats have run John Wall, Brandon Knight and Marquis Teague out there. They aren't walking through that door.
But here's something that few people are discussing concerning the Wildcats and their potential NCAA tourney 10-seed: They are not nearly as bad as six losses might suggest. Kentucky is not the Kentucky of old, but it is also a team subject to its aggressive non-conference slate — Duke, Notre Dame, Maryland, Baylor and Louisville dot the resume. Are there bad losses? Absolutely. Kentucky should not be losing to the likes of the Aggies in Rupp Arena or squeaking by Vanderbilt. But top-15 defensive teams are tough to overcome in March. Remember that.
This is why, when you look back at all those freshmen, it takes a little more than rolling a ball out there and saying, "Now go earn yourself a spot in the NBA." Sure, those youngsters' names roll off the sporting conscious' tongue, but if the top recruiting class won the championship or was guaranteed a spot in the Final Four every year, we'd be talking about Calipari chasing John Wooden by now. We aren't, because this system is still predicated and manipulated by 18- and 19-year-old young men still figuring this whole basketball thing out. And if/when they do … watch out.
This is why, despite what you heard, coaching elite talent isn't always a walk in the Big Blue park.