Miami has already proven itself during the initial weeks of the 2014-15 season. The Hurricanes earned a road win over (then) top-ten in-state rival Florida the first week of the season before winning the Charleston Classic and ascending to No. 15 in the rankings this week.
Tuesday night the Hurricanes passed another important test, as they held high-scoring No. 24 Illinois to a season-low in points in a 70-61 home win. While the Hurricanes have relied at times on strong individual scoring performances from guards Angel Rodriguez and Shelden McClellan during the early part of the season, it was the defense and a balanced scoring effort that got it done to give the ACC their first win in the annual ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Entering Tuesday night’s game, Illinois was averaging 90 points per game on 48 percent shooting. Those numbers plummeted against Miami, as the Fighting Illini struggled to find consistent perimeter shooting — which was a huge issue for them last season — as they were held to 33 percent from the floor and 23 percent from three-point range.
Illinois entered this season with some questions at point guard after starting lead guard and senior Tracy Abrams went down with a torn ACL. Abrams’ replacements in the lineup, transfer guards Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby, didn’t answer the call against the Hurricanes. The two combined to go 2-for-20 from the field and 2-for-13 from three-point range and didn’t give the Illini much of anything.
Senior guard Rayvonte Rice had a big outing as the go-to performer for Illinois, going for 22 points and 12 rebounds, but Starks and Cosby need to make life easier for him by hitting shots and providing floor spacing. It doesn’t help that the duo also can’t match the perimeter defense that Abrams provides and it was part of the reason that Miami committed a season-low five turnovers.
But back to Miami’s effort, which was certainly impressive. The Hurricanes only trailed 3-0 early in the game and controlled the rest of the game on both ends of the floor — when the game didn’t devolve into an ugly chuck-fest for both teams. It’s no secret that both of these teams aren’t afraid to hoist perimeter shots and there were quite a bit of quick looks from both teams as neither could really find an offensive rhythm.
Miami also has to be pleased that its offense stepped up when Rodriguez struggled. The junior point guard only had nine points on 2-for-9 shooting, but Deandre Burnett had 19 points off the bench, Manu Lecomte chipped in 15 points and McClellan added 14.
Miami is 8-0 for the first time since 2009 and Jim Larranaga’s team looks like they are starting to get a comfortable feel for how to win tight games in different ways. The Hurricanes beat a good opponent in Illinois and didn’t need Rodriguez to go in beast mode and they held the lead for nearly the entire game despite shooting only 38 percent from the field.
There hasn’t been a time that Miami has faced a truly elite team this season — Florida is very depleted and Illinois is still finding itself offensively around Rice against good defenses — but the Hurricanes are finding ways to win games and look like arguably college basketball’s biggest surprise to this point in the young season.