After beginning the season with five consecutive wins, the toughest of which coming against La Salle in Lonnie Walker IV’s “homecoming,” No. 10 Miami was going to answer some questions about itself one way or another in Wednesday’s game at No. 12 Minnesota. The Hurricanes passed that test, beating the Golden Gophers 86-81 behind a balanced offensive effort in which Jim Larrañaga’s team found its way into the paint for much of the night.
1. Miami’s perimeter options make the Hurricanes a nightmare to defend.
This group of Hurricanes isn’t as experienced across the board as Larrañaga’s best teams at Miami have been, but what they do share with those teams is having a host of options capable of breaking down defenses off the dribble. JaQuan Newton, Bruce Brown Jr., Chris Lykes and the aforementioned Walker are all capable of making plays, either for themselves or their teammates. Miami was able to break down the Minnesota defense on a consistent basis, either by using the dribble to beat a defender straight-up or in ball-screen actions.
The Hurricanes shot 50.7 percent from the field and 10-for-25 from three, with many of those looks coming by way of dribble penetration that opened up shooters such as Brown, Anthony Lawrence II and D.J. Vasiljevic. To make plays offensively against the teams Miami beat for its first five wins is one thing; to go on the road in a tough environment against a quality opponent and do it is another.
2. The value of Dupree McBrayer was evident in Minnesota’s first defeat of the year.
This was part of the reason why Miami was so successful with its dribble penetration. With McBrayer, who was sidelined with a right leg injury, out of the lineup Minnesota went up against a team loaded with quality ball-handlers without an athletic off-guard who at 6-foot-5 has some size to him as well. Isaiah Washington made his first collegiate start as a result, and while the focus of some may be the freshman’s off shooting night (6-for-17 FG, 14 points) what Minnesota lost defensively was of even greater importance.
McBrayer’s a solid defender, and his versatility offensively — as he can operate either with or without the ball in his hands — makes the junior a valuable member of Richard Pitino’s rotation. It was clear that Minnesota missed McBrayer’s presence, especially when Miami was able to get rolling offensively via dribble penetration.
3. Dewan Huell continues to build on his positive start to the season.
With his 23 points on 10-for-16 shooting Huell, a McDonald’s All-American out of high school, scored in double figures for the sixth consecutive game this season. By comparison, as a freshman the 6-foot-11 Miami native reached double figures six times the entire season. With his athleticism Huell was able to finish multiple pick and roll actions above the rim, and despite the low rebound total (two) he more than held his own against the Minnesota tandem of Jordan Murphy and Reggie Lynch.
Huell’s play throughout the night afforded Miami the luxury of being able to devote more defensive attention to Murphy, who still went off for 17 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks (he’s that damn good). Miami shaded its defense towards Murphy for much of the night, and while he still got his Minnesota’s experienced front court tandem was not able to dominate the game. Lynch added 12 points, ten rebounds and seven blocked shots in a solid effort.
4. The Big Ten really needed Minnesota to come through.
With its win at Providence and Saturday’s neutral site win over Alabama, Minnesota’s got some quality results on its early-season résumé. As for the rest of the Big Ten outside of Michigan State and Purdue? Not so much, with Maryland having two wins over KenPom Top 100 teams in Butler and Bucknell. And given how much the Big Ten has struggled in this edition of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, Minnesota finding a way to come back and defend its home court would have provided a needed boost in what has been a rough week for the Big Ten.
Minnesota will be fine; Washington and Nate Mason should get more comfortable sharing the court as two primary ball-handlers and McBrayer’s eventual return will help as well. But a team that’s gotten off to a good start to the season could have given its slumping conference a much-needed boost by beating a Miami team that at minimum has the look of an ACC title contender.