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‘Hoos previews: Miami in town before week off

Column by Zach Pereles

UVA basketballOn Tuesday, Virginia very much looked like a team that needed a break: tired and not as sharp as normal both physically and mentally. Now, only the Miami Hurricanes stand between the Cavaliers and a much-needed and well-deserved break. Virginia won’t play from Super Bowl Sunday until their own “Super Bowl” of sorts, a rematch with Duke in Charlottesville next Saturday. It could be easy to look forward to that break and past the lowly Hurricanes (9-11, 1-7), but the Cavaliers ought not to get too far ahead of themselves.

There’s no way around it: This year’s version of Miami is not up to par with what Jim Larranaga has built in Coral Gables. The team is on track to miss its first NCAA Tournament since 2015.

It’s been an especially difficult January. The team has lost seven of its eight games — all in the ACC — and the NCAA announced earlier this week that former five-star recruit Dewan Hernandez will continue serving his suspension for the remainder of the season. Hernandez, in turn, said he will pursue professional options. Miami will be itching to turn things around in February, and that starts in Charlottesville.

Miami’s lone ACC win this year came against Wake Forest in the second week of January. The Hurricanes have given some good teams a solid challenge, but they haven’t really been able to get over the hump. They led NC State by double digits before folding over the last 10 minutes or so and gave Florida State a run for its money in Tallahassee. They also hung with North Carolina for about 22 minutes.

The biggest issue for Larranaga’s squad this year is shooting: The Hurricanes don’t shoot it particularly well from anywhere on the floor — ranking outside the top 100 in the nation in two-point shooting, three-point shooting and free-throw shooting — and struggle to defend good shooters. The Hurricanes are dead last in the ACC in defensive efficiency, per KenPom. The Hurricanes lack depth, too, thanks to the suspension of Hernandez and a season-ending injury to fellow big man Deng Gak, who hurt his left knee in early December. The Hurricanes essentially have a seven-man rotation. Larrananga has employed three different starting lineups in his past three games.

Virginia, meanwhile, will look to rebound from a sloppy 67-66 overtime victory over NC State. The Cavaliers looked listless at times offensively and committed 16 turnovers while also allowing 16 offensive rebounds. They’ll look to fix those issues back home in the friendly confines of John Paul Jones Arena for the first time since Jan. 22.

Three Cavaliers to watch:

  • Kyle Guy. After torching Notre Dame for 15 points on just eight shots, Guy really struggled at NC State, making just three of his 11 shots and just one of five three-pointers. But that one make was a big one, giving UVA a lead it would not relinquish in overtime. Guy has been phenomenal at home this year, shooting 52.5 percent overall and a scorching 53.6 percent from deep, much better than his road percentages of 43.4 and 40.4, respectively. Against a team that has struggled to defend three-pointers, Guy should have a good opportunity to get back on track.
  • Kihei Clark. Dynamite Miami ball-handler Chris Lykes. Pesky defender Kihei Clark. A 5-foot-7 scorer versus a 5-foot-9 stopper. Get your popcorn — and your binoculars — ready for these two diminutive guards.
  • Jay Huff. With Jack Salt stuck on the bench with five fouls, it was Huff — not Mamadi Diakite — who played the entirety of overtime. Give Huff credit for coming up with some key plays on both ends. He could be a big factor against a Miami frontcourt that lacks depth.

Three Hurricanes to watch:

  • Chris Lykes. If Miami wants to have a shot at a major upset, it needs Lykes to be at his best. A fearless scorer, Lykes tallied 30 points in the win against Wake Forest, and he’s scored at least 17 points in five other conference games. Lykes carries the Miami offense almost single-handedly, and when he’s struggling, so, too, is the team. He’s shooting 46.4 percent in wins and 41.3 percent in losses. Forcing Lykes into tough shots and turnovers will be the key to success on Saturday.
  • Anthony Lawrence. One of the conference’s premier shooters, Lawrence has made 43.3 percent of his three-point attempts in ACC play. He’s also shooting a ton of free throws this year. At 6-foot-7, Lawrence could be the guy trying to slow down De’Andre Hunter on the other end.
  • Ebuka Izundu. Bennett was not happy with Virginia’s effort on the glass against NC State, but the big men get an immediate chance to bounce back against a tough opponent. Izundu is sixth in ACC play in offensive rebounding percentage and is grabbing nearly nine rebounds per game on the season. If Jack Salt, Mamadi Diakite and Jay Huff want to prove they’re past their rebounding struggles against the Wolfpack, Izundu will be a great test.

KenPom says: Virginia, 74-53 (98 percent chance of victory)

Final notes:

  • The Hurricanes last beat Virginia in 2016, a 54-48 overtime win in Charlottesville. Last year, Virginia returned the favor with a 59-50 win in the Sunshine State.
  • Larranaga is in his eighth year at Miami after spending 11 years with George Mason in Fairfax County, Virginia. Previous to that, he coached at Bowling Green State. He is one of 13 active coaches with at least 600 Division I wins.
  • The Hurricanes’ most recent top-10 win was at No. 9 North Carolina in February of last year.