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.