Canes to face tough stretch in coming weeks

The Hurricanes are nearing the end of a magical regular season. So far, they have climbed the national rankings all the way to No. 11, sit in second place in the ACC and have captivated fans with a high-flying and up-tempo style of play. The key words in that sentence are “so far” – the Canes have a four-game stretch coming up in the next two weeks that will define their season for better or for worse.

In a 12-day span, Miami will square off against heavyweights North Carolina, Virginia, Louisville and Notre Dame. The first game in this brutal stretch against North Carolina on Saturday is perhaps the most crucial. North Carolina is the only team ahead of Miami in the ACC rankings, so a win against them would catapult the Canes into the top spot and give them a tiebreaker over UNC if the teams finish the season tied.

The Canes (20-4, 9-3) will need to play their best game of the season if they want to leave the Dean Dome with a victory against the No. 5-ranked team in the country. The key to this game will be how well Miami’s interior players perform. North Carolina’s frontcourt is very big and deep off the bench, but if Miami can keep them in check, the Canes have a shot at bringing home a huge victory.

The second game of this challenging stretch is a Monday matchup with Virginia, the team that has won the last two ACC regular season titles. Miami lost the first matchup of the season in Charlottesville, but the Canes will have the home crowd advantage for this contest.

In their previous meeting, Virginia’s methodical and slow style of play limited the Canes’ transition opportunities and put them in a funk offensively. Additionally, poor defense in the second half didn’t help the team’s cause as the Cavaliers handed Miami an eight-point loss. Redshirt senior guard Angel Rodriguez and the other ball-handlers will need to control the tempo and push the pace of this game to combat Virginia’s style of play.

The grueling home stand continues with a Saturday game against Louisville on Feb. 27. The Cardinals always feature a talented group of players, but they could arrive in Coral Gables with a little extra motivation. Because of self-imposed sanctions, Louisville will be ineligible to compete in post-season play after the regular season ends. Therefore, this late-February game against a potential top-10 opponent could provide a pseudo-championship game for the Cardinals and their seniors. The Canes should be favored going in, as Louisville enjoys playing an up-tempo game similar to what Miami thrives in on the hardwood.

Finally, the Canes will play a road game against Notre Dame in the beginning of March in their last true test before the ACC Tournament. Miami dismantled the Irish in the first matchup of the season behind a breakout performance from freshman forward Anthony Lawrence. However, Notre Dame has proven that it is a much better team at home, highlighted by a victory over top-ranked North Carolina a couple of weeks ago. Defense will play a pivotal role for the Canes in this matchup as they will need to cut off Notre Dame’s penetration that leads to easy three-point looks on the outside.

This four-game stretch will undoubtedly be difficult for the Canes to navigate, but this is a team filled with experienced players who enjoy a challenge. It seems like madness for such a great season to boil down to four regular season games on the back end of the schedule, but then again, madness is what college basketball is all about this time of year.