Miami men’s basketball head coach Jim Larrañaga has always been aware of the major challenge that each game in the Atlantic Coast Conference poses.
With those challenges arriving more than once per week, even the ninth-oldest team in the country can fall victim to fatigue by February.
“You need to play consistently well and right now, I just think our team has drained itself of a lot of energy,” said Larrañaga, whose Hurricanes did not receive votes in the Associated Press Top 25 rankings Monday following back-to-back ACC losses for the first time this season. “We need to be revitalized. We need something inspirational, motivational that gets us going. Somebody [that can] catch fire, somebody [contributing] off the bench.”
Over the last two games versus Notre Dame and Virginia, Miami (16-7, 8-4 ACC) has not scored over 64 points. The only other two occurrences this season both hailed from one-point losses to Florida State, as the Hurricanes are 8-0 in conference play when scoring 70 or more points.
The eight conference games that UM has managed to win have caught the attention of many across college basketball, most often in down-to-the-wire settings. Each of the Canes’ first five ACC victories were decided by no less than eight points, and Larrañaga admitted that his team was “very fortunate” to win those and get the program off to its best start in conference play since 2013.
“I think every game is a major challenge. We prepare very well for our opponent and the opponent prepares very well for us,” Larrañaga said. “There [are] really no secrets.”
But even as much as winning provides for any program, Larrañaga emphasized Monday that the Hurricanes’ efficiency levels have dropped, particularly on the defensive end, after battling 11 different ACC opponents so far this season. Miami’s scoring defense ranks 12th in the ACC and just 234th nationally at 71.3 points per contest.
“This past week, I did not feel like we had the necessary energy, the ‘juice’, to play the best defense that we could play,” Larrañaga said. “We rely very heavily on our defense causing turnovers, so we can get into the open court. Because once it gets to, I’ll say like the Virginia game, where we just could not stop them [from scoring], could not force enough turnovers and we couldn’t make 3’s. The game sometimes is so simple. We had a bad shooting night and because of that, when we [were] not scoring and being able to step up our pressure, our defense was not quite as good, either.”
The 11th-year head coach added that the student-athletes and their coaching staff are not meeting as often as they did prior to the onset of the pandemic. Most of the team’s best interactions are experienced on the road following team suppers on nights before tip-off.
So, instead of trying to relay a unique message to his team, which has largely relied upon its veteran-backed starting lineup for over 28 minutes each outing, Larrañaga picked up the phone and rang one of the industry’s finest names.
On the other end wasn’t another ACC coach or a former assistant on his coaching staff. It, in fact, was Dr. Bob Rotella, arguably the most premier sports psychologist.
Rotella, the former director of the sports psychology department at the University of Virginia, remains a very close friend of Larrañaga’s who often keeps in touch with the two-time ACC Coach of the Year.
As it turns out, Rotella’s message was just what Larrañaga and his coaching staff had intended on doing to get a sense of what mental boost the Hurricanes needed.
“He said, ‘Ask your players. Ask your players what they need. Let them make some of the decisions moving forward. What are the things they need? Do they need to go harder in practice? Do they need to go lighter? Do they need [to do] more shooting? Do they need more rest? Whatever it might be, get the pulse of your players and figure out what their mindset is’,” Larrañaga said. “We got off to such a great start, we were sitting in first place for a good while, and now we’re not. That becomes then a mental problem and an emotional problem for problems on how to deal with it.”
In a season in which the Hurricanes have lost only one scholarship player due to a season-ending injury, UM’s guard-loaded rotation has powered together for the most forced turnovers per contest in the ACC. That hasn’t generated ample breathing room for the Canes’ frontcourt, nonetheless.
“[Our starting lineup is] getting worn down because they’re not the biggest, strongest, most physical guys to begin with,” Larrañaga said. “That’s challenging for all of our guys, they’re normally outsized at every position.”
Fortunately for Miami, eight conference games still lie on its 2022 calendar, excluding the ACC Tournament, in order to solidify a return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in four years. Perhaps assessing the team’s mental state can get the previously red-hot Hurricanes back on track as they still stand in the upper half of the ACC.
“[With] these games, it’s so important to stay in touch. You don’t want to be trailing by 10, 12, 14 points. We’ve done it and have come back [in the second half],” Larrañaga said. “We need our bench to contribute more. We need Anthony Walker, we need Bensley Joseph, we need Wooga Poplar to give us some energy coming in off the bench, and they do a good job but we need it consistently.”