The 14th annual ACC/Big Ten Challenge begins today and continues through tomorrow with a total of 12 games between teams in these two power conferences. Michigan State has drawn Miami (Fla.) in this one and they will play at Miami Wednesday night at 7:30 pm on ESPN. For Spartans and Hurricanes fans to get to know the opposition a little better, we arranged to do a Q & A exchange with SB Nation's Miami Hurricanes blog State of the U. SOTU's Jerry Steinberg answered some questions from me about Miami and tomorrow's game. We'll provide a link to my answers to his question as well.
For those of you looking for even more information, SOTU has some video with some of the 'Canes players and Coach Jim Larranaga.
1. Most MSU fans know Miami as a football school. What kind of basketball tradition do the Hurricanes have?
In the 60's you had Rick Barry, who led the NCAA in scoring at 37.4 ppg in 64-65. Then the Board of Trustees shut the program down from 1971-85. The program was competitive but not great in the 80's/90's. It was really on the verge of something special under Leonard Hamilton (yes the same Hamilton who has now turned around FSU), making 3 consecutive NCAA Tourney Appearances between 1998-2000. Then Wizards GM Michael Jordan called, and off went Hamilton. Things dried up under Perry Clark and Frank Haith with the exception of 2006-07 when Jack McClinton and a reserve PF named Jimmy Graham led them to the NCAA's again. Since then it has been NIT City. With 6 seniors on a team that overcame every possible (injury/suspensions) obstacle possible to just miss the Tourney last year, expectations for one of the best seasons in school history are present this year.
2. In the preseason Miami looked like a program on the rise, bringing back almost everybody from a 20-win team, but they lost an exhibition to DII St. Leo's and a regular season game to Florida Gulf Coast. Are those results aberrations or is there cause for concern?
There was genuine cause for concern. The team looked sluggish in those losses. But the last game against Detroit (a pretty good mid major) looked like a turn around. Miami was tenacious on defense, and efficient on offense. Despite their two best shooters going 0-8 from deep, the 'Canes won by 15. Things certainly appear to be looking up. The game against the Spartans of course will tell a whole lot more about this UM squad.
3. What's the view of Jim Larranaga as coach? He has the reputation as an advanced stats guy from his George Mason days. How does he compare to Frank Haith?
I'd say Larranaga is viewed very favorably. Miami overcame injuries (Reggie Johnson, Garrius Adams) Suspensions (Johnson, Durand Scott) and deaths in the family (Malcolm Grant) that led to season long shooting slumps to get within one game of the Tourney. Haith was viewed as a master recruiter but not a very good X's and O's guy or player development coach. DeQuan Jones was recruited by Haith and a 5 star guy and did nearly nothing in three years. He then made some strides as a senior under Larranaga, and is now on the Orlando Magic. Of course, the grass is always greener and Haith's success at Mizzou conflict with these perceptions.
4. If MSU fans are familiar with anyone on Miami, it's probably Reggie Johnson. Do you consider him the best player? Who else on the roster should we pay attention to?
Reggie is certainly the "biggest" name on the team. Pun intended. Sophomore point guard Shane Larkin keeps getting better every game. You might recognize the name, he is the son of hall-of-fame SS Barry Larkin. Durand Scott has been close to an ALL ACC player for 3 years and made a huge difference in his first game of the season, UM's last contest against Detroit. Kenny Kadji is a 6'11 forward who has drawn comparisons to Chris Bosh. And Trey McKinney Jones is nicknamed the "Swiss Army Knife" because he does a little bit of everything on the floor. Rion Brown is in the midst of an awful shooting slump, but is normally UM's best outside shooter and best above the rim finisher.
5. What matchups give you the most concern facing Michigan State? Where do you think Miami has the advantage?
Well certainly Keith Appling and his play making/shot making and prowess for the clutch are a concern. Nix and Payne down low could be a problem. Even a big squad like Miami could have trouble with that kind of brawn down low. I think Miami has more scorers then State, especially with Harris out. If Miami can break even down low, their perimeter advantage could be a big difference in this game.
6. Who wins this game and what makes the difference?
Unlike the contest against Detroit, Miami will not have the clear advantage down low. Reggie Johnson is going to need to be at his best or UM could be in trouble in the paint. Big Reg tends to save his best for the big games, so look for a solid perhaps signature performance for the 'Canes big man. Another difference in this game will be that there is no way the Hurricanes win if their two best outside shooters Kenny Kadji and Rion Brown combine to go 0-8 again from deep. Both guys are too good for that to happen again, so look for the 'Canes to knock down some shots tonight. Appling is going to make some plays, and even if Reggie plays big, the Spartans are going to get second chances. In a tight contest, the big men cancel each other out but Scott and Larkin make a few more plays than Appling and Miami squeezes out a 68-65 win.
Thanks again to Jerry for answering our questions. Definitely check out State of the U for all things Miami.