This is the time of year when college coaches want their teams to be playing their best basketball of the season, or at least approaching that level, but that would seem to be far from the case for the University of Miami.
After winning their first 13 games in Atlantic Coast Conference play and 14 in a row to start off the new calendar year, the Hurricanes have lost three of their last four contests, including their first home loss of the season Wednesday night to Georgia Tech.
The last-second defeat -- the Yellow Jackets won 71-69 on a tip-in at the final buzzer -- might have been the most painful of the three, but it did not affect the goals the Hurricanes set for themselves going back to last summer’s workouts.
With a 14-3 ACC record, they will go into Saturday afternoon’s home game against Clemson needing a victory to clinch their first outright ACC regular-season title. They already are assured of the No. 1 seed in next week’s conference tournament in Greensboro.
They could still get that even with a loss to the Tigers should Duke, which is 13-4 in the conference, lose at North Carolina later Saturday night.
But “backing into a title” is no way to build momentum for the postseason ahead.
What has gone wrong -- if that is not overstating the case -- with the Hurricanes was a topic coach Jim Larranaga addressed the day after the loss to Georgia Tech.
“One of the things I think we all knew is that once we had established ourselves as the frontrunner for the regular-season title and after we beat Duke [in the first meeting], who at the time was ranked No. 1 in the country, you absolutely know you are going to get everybody’s best shot,” he said. “And initially we kept playing on a very high level.
“We were able to overcome some very, very tough opponents on the road. We came from behind to beat Virginia Tech, we came from behind to beat N.C. State, and we had a barnburner of a game at Florida State and Clemson.
“But then I think we ran into a road game where we weren’t quite as sharp as we had been, and we lost at Wake Forest. I thought we bounced back pretty well. We handled Virginia Tech at home and played a great game at Duke and lost by a basket to a great team
“Then last night I thought Georgia Tech played a great game. Watching them, they made some incredible shots. One in particular was when Chris Bolden banked one in from the corner.
“Some nights it’s your night.”
It’s like the law averages are catching up on the Hurricanes, who earlier in the season won at N.C. State on a late tip and got out of Boston College with a one-point win when the Eagles missed a late free throw that could have sent the game to overtime.
“We had it rolling for a while,” Larranaga said. “I think it was because we were fresh. Now we’re a little tired. You see the wear and tear on a long season.
“So we need to regroup. We need to have a chance to get back physically, mentally, and emotionally to a level where we feel good about ourselves.”
That’s not the only changes the Hurricanes to make.
“When you’re playing well, it’s the opponent that has to make all the adjustments,” the coach said. “Now that they’ve made those adjustments, now it’s our turn.
“When you’re winning, we really don’t have to make any changes. Now we do.”
Not necessarily in the lineup -- though it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Julian Gamble back in the low post in place of Reggie Johnson, who has not produced in starting the last two games -- but with strategy, Larranaga said.
“How are going to guard the ball screens?” he said. “That’s one of the major culprits right now.”
In each of the last three losses, the Hurricanes allowed their opponent to shoot better than 50 percent from the field. That had happened only once in the previous 25 games, at North Carolina State where the Wolfpack was 28 of 52 (53.8 percent) from the floor.
Opponents have had success moving Miami’s bigger inside defenders -- Kenny Kadji, Johnson, and Gamble -- out to the perimeter, back inside, and then back to the perimeter.
“It’s like an accordion,” Larranaga said. “You’re out, you’re in, you’re out, you’re in, and it’s very challenging.
“When a team is red hot and they’re loose because they feel they have nothing to lose and everything to gain, I think that’s what you’ve seen with Wake Forest and Georgia Tech.”
One of the keys to look for then when the Hurricanes how Clemson is how they defend the perimeter. In their three recent losses, they have allowed their opponents to shot a combined 49.1 percent (26 of 53) from 3-point range.
Clemson is the worst 3-point shooting team in the conference (31.3 percent) and may not provide a very accurate reading of where the Hurricanes are with their perimeter defense.
But if the Tigers do go off on 3-pointers, it definitely would be a bad sign for the Hurricanes.