Tonye Jekiri

Angel Rodriguez
Associated Press

Angel Rodriguez, Miami take home Puerto Rico Tipoff title

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Miami’s depth and talent were certainly on display this weekend as they won the Puerto Rico Tipoff, beating No. 22 Butler 85-75 in Sunday’s title game. And it was clear all weekend that their hopes of contending in the ACC this season will ultimately hinge on the play of senior point guard Angel Rodriguez.

Rodriguez produced more positive plays than negative all weekend in San Juan, performing well in his return to the island he calls home. And if Jim Larrañaga’s team is to make a run at their first ACC title since 2013, that will have to be the case as the Hurricanes play in even bigger games when conference play begins.

Rodriguez accounted for 17 points and three assists, but he also had four turnovers with three coming during a second-half stretch in which Butler mounted its rally. The first half for Miami was, when factoring in the caliber of the opponent, as good a half of basketball they’ve played all year. Even better than what they did in the first half of the win over Mississippi State on Thursday, because Butler is a team that will hear its name called Selection Sunday.

The Hurricanes’ length and athleticism caused problems for Butler at both ends of the floor, as the Bulldogs shot 40.7 percent from the field, and Miami was able to shoot 52.9 percent. Half of Miami’s 18 first half field goals were assisted, with Butler’s help side defenders paying the price for being too quick to help in an attempt to take away driving lanes.

Tonye Jekiri accounted for eight points and seven rebounds, finishing with 12 and 12, and backup point guard Ja’Quan Newton scored eight of his 17 and dished out three assists during the first stanza. Whatever Miami wanted to get done they were able to in the first half, leading by as much as 19 and taking a 13-point lead into the break.

Butler improved on both ends of the floor in the second half, and with Miami not playing with the same efficiency the Bulldogs were able to climb back into the game. Managing the game is where point guard play comes in, which is why Rodriguez is the most important piece for Miami as they look to compete with the likes of North Carolina, Duke and Virginia atop the ACC.

When he’s on Rodriguez can be one of the ACC’s top point guards, and by extension the Hurricanes are an ACC contender. But when he struggles, even with their depth the Hurricanes have the appearance of a team that’s a bit scattered on the court. Outside of a few minutes Sunday night Miami got “good Rodriguez” in Puerto Rico, and as a result they head back to the mainland with the Puerto Rico Tipoff trophy in tow.

And if this group is to have a chance of reaching the heights last seen by Shane Larkin and company, that will have to be the case during ACC play as well.

Miami serves notice with blowout of No. 16 Utah

Sheldon McClellan
Associated Press
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Picked to finish fifth in the ACC preseason poll, head coach Jim Larrañaga’s Miami Hurricanes were considered by some to be a sleeper in the conference title race. After the Hurricanes’ showing Friday night against No. 16 Utah, it may be time to give them even more credit than that.

Sheldon McClellan scored 27 points and fellow senior Tonye Jekiri was a star in the post, accounting for a career-high 20 points to go along with 12 rebounds, as Miami blew out the Runnin’ Utes by the final score of 90-66. While Utah’s first half foul trouble didn’t help matters, Miami took over from the start and didn’t look back. The Hurricanes were efficient offensively, shooting 53.4 percent from the field, 9-for-17 from three and committing just seven turnovers.

By comparison Utah committed 16 turnovers and Miami made them pay for many of those mistakes, racking up 22 points off of turnovers. Larry Krystkowiak’s team shot the ball well, making half of their shots from the field. But when you lose the turnover battle as decisively as they did,  field goal percentage doesn’t matter much at all.

Angel Rodriguez was solid at the point against a team still looking to account for what was lost at the position with Delon Wright’s graduation, scoring 11 points and dishing out four assists with just one turnover. Miami isn’t a team that will post a high assist rate due to their use of the dribble to get things going offensively, and Friday night just 13 of their 31 field goals were assisted.

But when they’re clicking things open up by way of the ball screen, either for the ball-handler, screener or wings, or breaking down their man off the dribble. Utah looked to a zone defense at times to slow down the Hurricanes but they couldn’t find the right answer for either McClellan or Jekiri, with Miami’s two leading scorers combining to shoot 18-for-22 from the field.

Next up for Miami is No. 22 in the title game of the Puerto Rico Tipoff Sunday night, giving them one more chance to make a national statement before returning stateside. Given the expectations surrounding North Carolina, Duke and Virginia, it would be unfair to paint Miami’s placement in the preseason ACC poll as some kind of “disrespect.” If anything, when combined with the Hurricanes’ play in San Juan it simply shows just how deep the conference will be this season.

Rick Pitino questions Miami and Jim Larranaga’s handling of potential concussion following Louisville’s win

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Louisville head coach Rick Pitino had some interesting words for Miami and head coach Jim Larranaga for their handling of Hurricane center Tonye Jekiri’s alleged head injury.

During the first half of Louisville’s two-point ACC home win over the Hurricanes on Saturday, Cardinals junior forward Montrezl Harrell threw the ball off of Jekiri’s face while the Miami big man was out of bounds to regain possession. The ball hit the Miami big man in the face at a good velocity and Jekiri didn’t start the second half as the broadcast crew calling the game on television mentioned how he wasn’t on the bench for the Hurricanes.

So what was the situation with Jekiri and his health status?

According to Jeff Greer of the Courier-Journal, Pitino questioned to reporters after the game how Jekiri could be healthy and back in the second half so quickly after allegedly hearing Larranaga say to officials that the center had concussion concerns. Here’s Pitino’s take on the exchange regarding the injury incident:

“Here’s the ironic thing: Coach Larranaga walked over to the officials, all the way over to the other side. I’ve never seen that. I wanted to know what (Larranaga said). The official says, ‘Well, he wanted to let me know that the big guy has a concussion on that play.’ I said, ‘What motive do you need to know that? He’s back in the game.’

“So I called (Louisville football coach) Bobby Petrino — this is no joke — I said, ‘Get a hold of that Miami doctor because, in 15 minutes, a kid went from a concussion to playing and totally healthy.’ We’re sending a plane down to hire that doctor for football. We will never have a concussion ever again. He was back 3-4 minutes later. He walked all the way over there to tell him he had a concussion, then he was back in the game.”

The play did change the course of the game for Harrell, who had a double-double with 21 points and 14 rebounds. Most of that damage came after the controversial play involving Jekiri. The Louisville junior was given a technical foul upon review of the play — Pitino said he was okay with the tech call, per Greer’s story — and Harrell called it a “basketball play” after the game.

It’s really hard to say if Miami and Larranaga went through the proper concussion protocols regarding Jekiri because we haven’t heard the coach’s potential response to Pitino or know the details of how the trainers handled Jekiri. Hopefully Jekiri wasn’t concussed and can continue playing the rest of the season with no further incident. The Pitino comments do make you think about the handling of concussion symptoms, however.

By coming back in the second half and winning, Louisville (21-6, 9-5) staying tied for fourth place in the ACC with North Carolina while Miami dropped to 7-7 in league play and 17-10 overall.

Miami’s tallest addition continues to dominate the glass during Spain trip

Jim Larranaga
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The biggest difference for Miami in 2013-14 was the fact that six of the top seven players from a team that won the ACC in 2012-13 were gone, and one area in which Jim Larrañaga’s team was affected was on the backboards. After ranking second in the ACC in rebounding margin in 2012-13 the Hurricanes were a middle of the pack team in that regard last season, ranking seventh in the conference in rebounding margin, offensive and defensive rebounding percentage (conference games only).

With Miami’s depth improving the expectation is that the Hurricanes will be a better team in 2014-15, but most of the attention has been paid to the perimeter with Sheldon McClellan and Angel Rodriguez eligible and talented freshman JaQuan Newton joining the program. Yet through the first two games of their tour of Spain, it’s become quite obvious that there’s a front court addition worth paying attention to as well.

His name: Ivan Cruz Uceda, who’s enjoying a homecoming of sorts given the fact that the 6-foot-10 power forward is a native of Madrid. Cruz Uceda played at Harcum College in Pennsylvania last season, and he’s put up some impressive rebounding numbers for the Hurricanes this week.

In Miami’s 77-66 win over Albacete on Sunday, McClellan led the way offensively with 24 points with Cruz Uceda managing to corral 13 rebounds to go along with eight points, two assists, two blocked shots and two steals. The 13 rebound performance comes on the heels of Cruz Uceda’s 17-rebound performance in Miami’s win over Eurocolegio Casvi on Friday night, and if he can continue to hit the boards hard when the regular season begins that would provide Miami with a much-needed boost.

At the end of last season the Hurricanes bid farewell to three of their top four rebounders, with junior Tonye Jekiri (5.5 rpg in 2013-14) being their leading returnee in that department. With that being the case Cruz Uceda and freshman Omar Sherman, who’s averaging 6.5 rebounds per game on the trip, are important figures moving forward.

Miami has more options after needing to slow things down to account for their lack of depth, and that should lead to a better 2014-15 for Larrañaga’s Hurricanes.