March 23, 2016
Let’s just get this out of the way up front: I’m a graduate of the University of Miami and no matter how hard I try, at least part of me will be rooting for the Hurricanes on Thursday night.
I know, it’s not what you want to hear, but at least it’s my alma mater. Can you really blame me for that? It’s not like I have anything against two-seed Villanova. If it weren’t for the Wildcats’ opponent in the Sweet 16, I’d likely be pulling for them. And to take it a step further, my allegiance to The U will actually benefit you, the reader. Long before this matchup was even a possibility, I had been following both teams closely all year. And the similarities between the two are astounding.
No. 3 seed Miami (27-7), not unlike Villanova, is a veteran team. They have a lot upperclassmen and a coach in Jim Larranaga who has had plenty of NCAA Tournament experience of his own. Ten years ago, then at George Mason, he lead is team on an improbable run to the Final Four as an 11-seed.
But the comparisons hardly stop there. That fact wasn't lost on either coach during their press conferences on Wednesday.
"[Villanova's] style of play, I think, is very inviting to high school recruits," said Larranaga, who said he's known Wright for a while now. "They do a lot of ball screens. They play multiple defenses. And we think we're very similar.
"We're almost like the mirror image of them. We do a lot of ball screen. We play a lot of man-to-man defense, but we'll change it up from time to time."
Wright was later asked about that during his media session, and while he said the similarities help in game planning, he knows that Miami is preparing in exactly the same way.
"It makes it a little easier to prepare in terms of the work you have to do because we have a lot of similar philosophies. So when you're practicing, the second team can run the offense easily. They know what they're doing.
"Where it becomes different is we can't simulate the size and athleticism. You definitely can't do it with your second team. So it's going to be interesting, when you get to the game, are we prepared for the plays and does the size and athleticism kind of smack us in the face when you feel it and see it live. That's what we can't tell until we play."
We still have another day to wait until that happens, so in the meantime, let's meet the Miami players...
A redshirt senior from Puerto Rico, Rodriguez transferred to Miami following his sophomore season at Kansas State. On the court, he's smart and scrappy; he reminds me a lot of Ryan Arcidiacono and the two of them should have a great battle on Thursday night. He averages 12.6 PPG, but as he showed in the Hurricanes' second-round win over Wichita State, he can fill it up when need be. Despite being just 5-foot-11, Rodriguez gets a lot of his points near the basket, but isn't afraid step back and hit the three (33.1 percent). However, he can be turnover-prone as was the case against the Shockers when he had seven (yes, seven) of them. On the defensive end, he averages close to two steals per game and has the ability to drive the opponent's point guard absolutely nuts.But what he really brings to the team, beyond what the stat sheet shows, is leadership. These aren’t too bad either:
Another redshirt senior, the 6-foot-5 guard who, like Rodriguez transferred to Miami (from Texas) is the team's leading scorer and their most dangerous offensive weapon. He shoots 50 percent from the field and 38.9 percent from three. And when he's hot, he attracts extra attention, which usually frees up Rodriguez or one of his other teammates to take on the scorer's role. Oh, and he can do stuff like this:
G Davon Reed
Like Villanova, Miami runs a very guard-oriented system and favors speed over size. That’s why the Hurricanes only have one starter listed over 6-foot-8. Davon Reed, a junior from Ewing, N.J., is the third guard and checks in at 6-foot-5. He’s the third-leading scorer on the team, but at 39 percent, he just beats McClellan out as their best outside shooter. As is the case with any outside shooter not named Steph Curry, Reed can be streaky, but over the last month (eight games), he has hit 17 of 30 three-point attempts (56.7 percent), including four of seven in the tourney. And like McClellan, he’s athletic.
F Kamari Murphy
Murphy, a junior, plays the fewest minutes of any of the starters, but is second on the team in rebounds and tied for first in blocks. And in case you haven’t noticed a theme among these Miami players — they’re athletic.
C Tonye Jekiri
The seven-foot senior is the team’s leading rebounder — and for good reason. He’s four inches taller than the next closest starter. He reminds me a lot of Villanova senior Daniel Ochefu. Both play surrounded by guards, and although Ochefu is the more active and probably better offensive player, it will be interesting to see what Jekiri will be able to against a ‘Nova team that doesn’t have much size to help its big man in the post.
10.8 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 2.5 APG
Newton, a 6-foot-2 sophomore, is typically the first ‘Canes player off the bench and averages 22.8 minutes per game. He’s also the first underclassman we’ve mentioned so far. An extremely athletic but somewhat raw guard, his style will be familiar to anyone familiar with the long lineage of Philly guards. Newton led Neumann-Gorretti to a state title in 2013 and won four straight Catholic League titles while scoring 1,972 career points, the most ever by a Catholic League player. This highlight may be from last season, his freshman year, but it’s definitely worth showing again.
OTHER BENCH PLAYERS
F Ivan Cruz Uceda (6-10, Senior): 5.4 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 13.6 MPG
G James Palmer (6-5, Sophomore): 3.4 PPG, 1.2 RPG, 12.0 MPG
F Anthony Lawrence Jr. (6-7, Freshman): 4.0 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 11.9 MPG
Three Villanova players -- Ryan Arcidiacono, Josh Hart and Daniel Ochefu -- met with the media in Louisville today ahead of Thursday night's game against Miami. Here's what they had to say about trying to shut down Miami's guards:
ARCIDIACONO: They have great drivers. They have great scorers on the perimeter. I think one of the things that we're going to have to do to stop them is not show them any space, show them our bodies and our triangles so that they don't see the space to be able to drive into the paint. But we know they're great shooters too so it's going to be a tough matchup for us.
HART: Just continue, like Ryan said. They're experienced, they're physical, they're strong. We just can't let them see space. We've got to lower to them. We can't just swipe at them. Hopefully, that will slow them down. We've got to have them see their bodies, not see driving spaces, able toward in the lanes.
OCHEFU: I think also just adding to what they said, just guarding them as a team. Not one guy is going to stop Rodriguez or McClellan. It's going to be the whole team playing them. Us locking into the scouting report the way we did last time, focusing on Iowa's two main scorers. And a game like this is very similar.
Here's what Villanova coach Jay Wright had to say about what will be most challenging against the 'Canes:
Let me start with that Wichita State game because it's something we shared with our team and that we were very impressed with.
They started that game very focused and very prepared for an outstanding Wichita State team. Took the lead. Wichita State, great team, came back, took the lead. When they took the lead, you could see in their eyes no panic, no concern. You saw them step it up another level against a team that was on a run.
If you do that any time, you're a good team. But when you do that in the NCAA Tournament, when you fight against momentum in the NCAA Tournament with no panic, momentum in the NCAA Tournament is far greater than any other time during the year.
The crowd got into it, Wichita State got into it. Miami never flinched, took back control of the game and then methodically put them away.
We told our guys, you got to be wily veterans to be able to do that. And to give you three things that they do, number one, their guard play. McClellan and Rodriguez are outstanding. You've got two -- one guard that can really score and create for the other and McClellan, one that is just an incredible scorer.
When you add Newton and Reed, you could actually see that when those two leave, Newton and Reed are going to be the same combo. Because Newton's creative, and he can score like Rodriguez. Reed is incredibly athletic, can shoot it.
But this year, you've got four of them together. It's not just the two. It's the four of them that are outstanding. And then you take their forwards who play the role of screening for them, rebounding extremely well, but also if you spend too much attention on those guards, those guys can score.
Follow Matt on Twitter: @matt_mullin