As if out of nowhere, the Miami Hurricanes have jumped to near the top of the Associated Press rankings. Unranked until the second to last week in January, Jim Larranaga's team now rides the inside track to the ACC championship and a number one seed in the NCAA tournament. Miami has only five games remaining, and would need to lose four out of those last five games to risk giving up the conference regular season title. That seems unlikely; the Hurricanes haven't lost in nearly two months.
A number of different players are sharing the spotlight this season for Miami. Seniors Kenny Kadji and Durand Scott are names that ACC hoops fans already knew. Sophomore point guard and Hurricane leading scorer Shane Larkin also has a famous name; his father Barry was a all-star shortstop who last summer was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. These players have all received well-deserved recognition for their recent play.
Still, the biggest reason that Miami has suddenly taken a spot at the top of college basketball is something else; the real story behind the Hurricane's improvement is their defense. And so much of that improvement is linked to the play of a single player, Julian Gamble, who like his team, has come almost out of nowhere.
Last season, Miami averaged 1.06 points per possession and allowed opponents to score 0.99 points per possession. With an average per possession point differential of +0.07, Miami was good enough to win 20 games, go 9-7 in the ACC, and get to the second round of the postseason NIT. This season, Miami is again scoring 1.06 points per possession, but has only allowed 0.90 points per trip. Jim Larranaga's team already has 22 wins, and is 13-0 in the ACC. By the Ken Pomeroy adjusted defensive rankings, the Hurricane's have the fourth best defense in college basketball.
The Hurricanes have made modest improvements between this season and last season in defensive rebounding and in avoiding fouls, both of which have helped their defense by a small amount. But the greatest improvement has been in what the Hurricanes do to protect the rim. Last season, Miami opponents made 68 percent of their layups and dunks, while this season that percentage is 54 percent. This is the single biggest reason that Hurricane opponents have shot an effective field goal percentage of 43 percent, compared with 48 percent a season ago.
The change in opponent's shooting percentage at the rim on its own is worth 0.05 points per possession, or a bit more than three points in a 65 possession game. Three points per game may not seem like much, but Jim Larranaga's team has won several close games on the road, claiming wins at Boston College (60-59), North Carolina State (79-78), and Clemson (45-43). If the Miami defense was three points per game worse than it is now, it is hard to imagine that the Hurricanes would currently be undefeated in ACC play.
So much of the improvement of the Miami defense can be traced to Hurricane center Julian Gamble. Since the start of ACC play, Gamble is averaging 24 minutes and 2.8 blocks per game. While on the floor this season, Gamble has blocked an estimated 10 percent of opponents two point shots, the No. 27 highest shot blocking rate in the nation.
Jim Larranaga was without Gamble's services a year ago, as he missed the entire season with a torn ACL. Coming into this season, Gamble seemed an afterthought. As a part-time player who had never averaged more than 15 minutes per game, no one was predicting greatness for the 23 year old. Gamble initially started the year coming off the bench. Then in late December senior center Reggie Johnson injured his hand, and missed eight games. Gamble stepped into the starting lineup and anchored the Miami D. Now, he is the most improved player on what might be America's most improved team.
There are certainly questions for Miami going forward. While the Hurricanes will almost surely win the ACC regular season title, it remains to be seen if they have enough offensive firepower to win six consecutive games between March 19 and April 8. But let's not worry about that right now; let's celebrate and enjoy the play of a 23-year-old Miami graduate who is making the most of his last chance at college hoops.