Bracing for the Hurricanes

COLUMN: Miami is too talented, too big, too physical & too deep to turn back toward the Atlantic now.

AUSTIN, Texas – Two things came to mind as I watched Miami wash out Pacific in the second round of the NCAA Tournament Friday in the Erwin Center.

The Hurricanes are fun to watch, and Illinois is going to have a hard time Sunday.

Those two statements aren't meant to run down the Illini. They've had a good season, and it certainly wouldn't be a disappointment to lose to a two seed in the Round of 32.

It's just that Illinois is running into a great team and a tough matchup in Miami.

The Hurricanes have star power and a roster full of grown men. The headliner, sophomore point guard Shane Larkin, is the eye of the storm. His statistical brilliance – 14.4 points and 4.6 assists per game – doesn't tell the whole story. The son of baseball Hall of Famer Barry Larkin, Shane controls the tempo and pace, can score in multiple ways and from any distance and defends with elite tenacity and effort.

He is, in my opinion, the best player not named Victor Oladipo remaining in the tournament.

Illinois coach John Groce was asked Saturday to compare Larkin to Michigan guard Trey Burke, who had 19 points and five assists against the Illini in January.

"They're very well rounded scoring players," Groce said. "They see things, they can make their team better, they make their teammates better."

Six seniors surround Larkin, including guard Durand Scott, who is an elite defender and has averaged 19.6 points in the Hurricanes last three games.

"He knows how to put the ball in the basket, obviously he's a great defender," Paul said of Scott. "But I've played against tough defenders my whole life and these are the moments you get up for as a top player."

Then there's the fleet of bigs down low, a group that looks more like an diverse pack of bodyguards than college-level players. Starters Julian Gamble and Kenny Kadji are 6-10 and 6-11. Often called-upon reserves Reggie Johnson and Tonye Jekiri go 6-10 and 7-0.

"Offensive rebound, defensive rebound, their ability to play in the post with their size," Groce said, rattling off the positives of the Miami frontline. "I think those guys screen well. They do a good job of getting deep position."

And oh, by the way, don't forget that Coach Jim Larranaga took George Mason to the Final Four in 2006 and is known to be one of the more organized and meticulously prepared coaches in the business.

Adding it all up, it seems as though Illinois stands little chance of advancing to its first Sweet Sixteen since 2005.

There are, however, a few caveats to the argument that Miami will roll, a few reasons why Illinois could weather the storm. Miami lost to Florida Gulf Coast (the 15-seed that upset Georgetown Friday), Indiana State, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech this season, momentary lapses in a season that was otherwise dominant.

Slips in the regular season, though, tend to be magnified to an unnecessary degree. You can't play at your best for three straight months, so every team has a dead spot or two in the front or back yard.

Instead of taking that route, let's look at Illinois' body of work and team makeup. Wins against No. 1 seeds Gonzaga and Indiana, as well as two-seed Ohio State, prove the Illini capable at giant killing.

As Gamble appropriately put it, "They're very battle tested." And while most everybody calls Illinois a 3-point shooting team, don't take the easy route and say if Illinois shoots well from 3, it might just pull off the upset.

Well, yeah, sure that's true. But that wasn't the consistent trend in those big regular season wins. The Illini did shoot 42 percent from downtown at Gonzaga, but missed 19 of 27 3s in the win versus Ohio State.

The pattern, instead, came on the defensive end of the court. Illinois forced at least 14 turnovers in those three games. Against Gonzaga, those extra possessions led to 20 points, Ohio State 17 and 28 versus the Hoosiers.

Shooting can come and go and come back again, in a half, single contest or stretch of games. But defense is a "controllable" and it's what could lead to an Illinois upset Sunday.

But it won't. Miami is too talented, too big, too physical and too deep to turn back toward the Atlantic now.

And while the Hurricanes won't intimidate an Illini team that doesn't lack for talent or experience, they will win.


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