March Madness has lived up to its name this year. A No. 15 seed, a No. 13 seed and a No. 12 seed made the Sweet 16, and the top-ranked team in the country didn’t make it out of the first weekend.
However, the East region mostly avoided parity, with the top four seeds advancing to the regional semifinals in Washington, D.C. Marquette, the East’s No. 3 seed, will take on No. 2 Miami Thursday at 6:15 p.m. CDT, for a place in the regional final against either top-seeded Indiana or No. 4 Syracuse.
On paper, Miami poses a difficult matchup for the Golden Eagles. The Hurricanes seem to hold at least a slim advantage over Marquette in every measurable category. Even experience, perhaps Marquette’s biggest strength, may favor Miami, as five out of its seven regular players are seniors.
Miami goes where sophomore point guard Shane Larkin takes it. The son of Major League Baseball Hall-of-Famer Barry Larkin, he consistently finds his way into comparisons with Michigan’s Trey Burke as the best point guard in college basketball. Larkin averages 14.5 points per game, along with four assists and nearly four rebounds per contest. His explosiveness and shooting ability make him a dangerous offensive threat.
The Hurricanes surround Larkin with a bevy of seniors who each contribute in different ways. Chief among them is senior stretch-4 Kenny Kadji. The 6-11 Kadji, who averages 13 points and seven rebounds per game, does a little bit of everything for the ‘Canes. He can score inside and out (he makes 1.4 three-pointers per game) and defends extremely well, with 1.3 blocks per game. He could pose matchup problems on the defensive end for Marquette, as he’ll likely draw Jamil Wilson when Miami has the ball.
Durand Scott (13.2 ppg), Trey Mckinnie Jones (9.2 ppg) and Rion Brown (6.5 ppg) fill out a deep and dangerous backcourt for Miami. Scott is a go-to scorer who can usually pick up the slack when Larkin falls short. Against Illinois Sunday, both Larkin and Scott struggled, so Brown made up the difference, scoring 21 points in the 63-59 win.
Senior center Reggie Johnson physically resembles Davante Gardner, but his offensive touch is nowhere near as good as Gardner’s. Senior forward/center Julian Gamble completes Miami’s frontcourt and occasionally provides a useful spark off the bench. Gamble scored 11 points in Miami’s ACC tournament championship win over North Carolina and added 10 against North Carolina State.
2013 ACC coach of the year Jim Larranaga pulls the strings for the Hurricanes. Most famous for taking George Mason to the Final Four in 2006 as a No. 11 seed, he turned around Miami’s scandal-ridden program with a dedication to advanced metrics. Larkin serves as an extension of Larranaga on the court.
Much like he did against Butler’s Rotnei Clarke, expect Derrick Wilson to see more time than usual Thursday as the primary defender on Larkin. Wilson played 16 minutes on Clarke Saturday and could see even more against Larkin if Junior Cadougan proves too slow defensively.
Miami does not force many turnovers, but it doesn’t turn the ball over much, either. As a result, Marquette’s execution in its half-court offense will go a long way in determining its success. If it settles for ill-advised three-pointers and cannot create driving lanes, the Golden Eagles will struggle to keep up with the ‘Canes in the scoring department.
Vander Blue needs to attack the basket with regularity. Blue has carried Marquette through the tournament so far (45 points in two games, including 29 against Butler) and will need to create good and open looks for his teammates by attacking the rim with force. This attacking style could also get Miami in foul trouble, which could really test the Hurricanes’ limited depth.
Many experts considered Miami a No. 1 seed coming into the tournament after it won both the regular season and conference tournament titles in the ACC. To beat the ‘Canes, Marquette will need to put forth a Herculean effort, and even then, it might not be enough.