By Carter Toole
In college basketball it’s always been paramount to protect your home floor.
And in the competitive cauldron that is Atlantic Coast Conference basketball it’s become even more critical.
You’ll get few arguments that once again the ACC is the country’s top basketball conference. There are nine teams currently ranked in the top 30 of the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI). And good teams lock in at home, knowing that a single slip up could quickly affect their pole position.
To wit…heading into Wednesday night’s games, ACC teams are currently 19-6 at home. Even more telling, the current top five teams in the standings (Florida State, Notre Dame, North Carolina, Duke and Virginia Tech) are a combined 10-0 at home with an average margin of victory of 19.8 points.
“When you look around the league you see how many ACC programs are terrific teams and playing a lot of young guys,” Head Coach Jim Larrañaga said. “Because the league has so many young players, there are going to be some inconsistencies.
“That’s always been the case, but I think this year even more so because freshmen are having a major impact but they’re still inconsistent. And road games are more challenging.”
The Hurricanes discovered that in their last outing, a 70-55 setback at Syracuse. It was the first taste of ACC road action for freshmen starters Bruce Brown and Dewan Huell, as well as reserve freshman guard D.J. Vasilijevic, who led Miami with 18 points.
But Miami knows all about protecting its home floor -- the Hurricanes have won 21 consecutive games at the Watsco Center. And Miami has also won its last 11 ACC games in Coral Gables, including a season-opening win over NC State on Dec. 31. The Hurricanes’ last home conference setback was to North Carolina on Feb. 28, 2015.
Good players and coaches have fueled that streak. But it also helps that UM season ticket sales have skyrocketed since Larrañaga took over. This season is the second consecutive season that Miami has sold out its season ticket allotment at the Watsco Center. Fans have purchased more than 5,500 season tickets, more than doubling the number sold in Larrañaga’s first season (2011-12).
“I think it’s the fan support that we’ve gotten from the community and from the student body,” Larrañagasaid. “We’ve developed a culture that has helped create the enthusiasm in the arena and has given us that ‘sixth man’ support that you need, especially during the ACC challenges where the opponent is such a high-level team -- a top 25 team.
“The fans help carry you to the finish line.”
Another high-level opponent arrives Thursday night in the form of No. 20 Notre Dame, which is playing as well as any team in the country right now. The Irish (14-2, 3-0 ACC) have won five consecutive games and their only two losses have come against then-No. 1 Villanova and then-15th-ranked Purdue on neutral courts.
The Hurricanes swept the Irish last season, winning 79-70 at home and winning in South Bend in convincing fashion, 68-50.
“They have really jumped on us there,” Irish head coach Mike Brey said. “Our challenge is to meet that intensity on the road on Thursday.”
Larrañaga’s first taste of ACC basketball came as an assistant coach under Terry Holland at Virginia in what many consider the glory days of the conference. In addition to Holland, coaches like Dean Smith, Jim Valvano, Lefty Driesell and a young Mike Krzyzewski were roaming the sidelines, coaching the likes of Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Ralph Sampson, Len Bias and Johnny Dawkins, to name but a few.
Larrañaga, who helped the Cavaliers make two Final Fours during his eight seasons in Charlottesville, acknowledges the strength of the league in the 1980s. But he says the ACC may be even tougher now.
“There was tremendous quality but you only had eight teams and, in any given year, maybe five or six made the NCAA Tournament – that’s 75 percent of the teams in the league,” Larrañaga said.
“I believe now the quality is there again, but the depth is at an all-time best, where you have 10, 12, 13 teams all battling with the belief that they can make the NCAAs.”
Two of those teams hook up in Coral Gables on national television Thursday night – just another night in college basketball’s toughest neighborhood.