Maybe it’s time for the University of Miami basketball team to play a little baseball.
Larranaga, who is in his second season at Miami, said that when he and his staff thought his team was getting tight and needed to relax, they would have the players play a little baseball game.
Not a full-fledged, on-the-diamond contest, but a makeshift affair featuring a piece of wadded up paper wrapped with tape to serve as a ball. One side would pitch underhand and the “batter” would get one swat at the ball with his hand. He either hit it fair or was out.
Bases were sit up as well, and the game was on.
Larranaga remembered in particular one time when his George Mason club had suffered a disappointing double-overtime loss on the road and that night was stuck in the airport because of flight delays.
Instead of allowing the players to continue moping about, Larranaga set up a baseball game in the nearly vacant gate area. It relaxed everybody, he said, and got them in a better frame of mind.
Two nights later, his team won a game a newspaper story said George Mason had “no chance” to win by over 40 points.
The topic came up because Larranaga recently had asked his assistants if the Miami players needed to play a little baseball to relieve some of the pressure that has been building as the Hurricanes have climbed in the polls.
No, they said. Not necessary.
That was a couple of weeks ago. It could be time now.
The Hurricanes’ play since the 26-point thrashing of North Carolina at home on Feb. 9, really hasn’t come close to matching the level the Hurricanes reached in January.
The first outing, a six-point win at Florida State, was fine. Not dominating, but the Hurricanes won a intense rivalry game on the Seminoles’ court, shooting 64 percent from the field. Though they made 16 turnovers, they also forced the Seminoles into 17.
Then came last Saturday’s debacle at unranked Wake Forest, an 80-65 loss to a team fighting to stay out of the Atlantic Coast Conference basement. It snapped their winning streak at 14 games (matching a school record) and gave the Hurricanes their first loss after 13 wins in ACC play.
In their last three games, the Hurricanes have shot under 40 percent from the field twice and have made more turnovers than their opponent twice.
They allowed Wake Forest, which had hit only 29.2 percent in its previous outing (a loss to Georgia Tech at home), to shoot 54.2 percent from the field. That’s a season high against the Hurricanes.
And their perimeter offensive game has deserted the Hurricanes. In the last three games, they are a combined 12 of 47 firing from 3-point range.
But as unfavorable as they were, numbers didn’t tell the complete story at Wake. The Hurricanes’ effort was far short of what they had been putting forth in their climb in the polls. It’s one thing to play hard and miss shots. It’s another not to play hard in the first place.
A team that had been talking about staying focused on the opponent and task at hand was anything but that against the Demon Deacons. They were a passive group that let the opponent dictate tempo and just about everything else that mattered.
Sophomore guard Shane Larkin acknowledged that in his post-game comments. According to reports in South Florida newspapers, Larkin told reporters he had a bad feeling during warmups before the game that the Hurricanes weren’t ready to play, that they were taking Wake too lightly.
And. he said, after they had cut a 19-point deficit down to five at one point in the second half, the Hurricanes quit playing as a team. That was reflected in a box score that showed the Hurricanes with only seven assists against Wake Forest for the second time in three outings, only two more than their season low of five against Arizona. They also had just seven against Clemson six days earlier.
Larranaga was a bit more circumspect in his comments.
“I think you learn from every game,” he said. “Some good things and some bad things, whether you win or lose. After a loss we will see how this team responds.
“We need to be together and we weren't very together today. We need to execute better, and we are going to need to play a lot harder than we did tonight.”
One game, even a 15-point loss, does not make a season, and at 22-4 the Hurricanes are the verge of their most successful season ever.
Three of their remaining four games are at home, and if they sweep them, they will finish first in the ACC and gain the conference tournament’s top seed no matter how they fare at Duke in their lone remaining road game.
Still, if they want to make the season really special and make a deep run into the NCAA tourney, they are going to have to get back to the way they were approaching things in January.
They have lost a bit of an edge and maybe, despite their words to the contrary, have become enamored with their new-found media and fan attention.
Maybe they need to play a little baseball.
Batter up, anyone?