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Zone continues to work for Hurricanes

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The zone defense coach Jim Larranaga installed for the University of Miami men’s basketball team seems to be paying dividends.

The Hurricanes are coming off a 63-57 victory over North Carolina as they get ready to host Florida State Wednesday night.

The game before that, they led second-ranked Syracuse deep into the second half before dropping a 49-44 decision, their only loss in their last five outings since returning from the semester break in early December.

Larranaga acknowledges that the Hurricanes have improved “drastically” on defense in recent outings, but he is withholding judgment on the 2-3 zone’s overall effectiveness.

“I’ll think we’ll know by the end of January what kind of defensive team we’ll have,” he said Monday. “If we are really good, that will give us a chance to win a bunch of games in February.”

The zone represents a major shift for Larranaga in defensive philosophy. Now in his 30th season as a head coach, his teams at Bowling Green, George Mason, and now Miami always played man-to-man defense.

But he had a feeling after watching this current team with a roster dominated by players in the 6-5 to 6-9 range in height that he may be better off going to a zone this time.

“I saw us giving up a lot of easy baskets in our man-to-man,” Larragana said of the season’s first month, “and I decided, ‘Well, it doesn’t look like this is going to be our bread-and-butter defense.

“It was kind of out of necessity.”

His first phone call, Larranaga said, was to Ralph Willard, who played a matchup zone as a head coach at Western Kentucky, Pittsburgh, and Holy Cross. Willard, who is retired and living in Naples, Fla., less than a two-hour drive across the state from Miami’s campus in Coral Gables, to get the dope on what a team can do out of a zone.

After running into him at a function, Larranaga asked former Syracuse assistant Bernie Fine for his input. Under Jim Boeheim, Syracuse is the poster child for zone defenses in college basketball.

Fine, who lives in nearby Fort Lauderdale, met with Larranaga and his assistants.

It wasn’t just Miami’s players who had to make the switch to zone from man-to-man. The coaches have to continue to learn the intricacies of the system as well.

“Very much so,” Larranaga said.

The matchup with Florida State could be a big indicator of how much more the Hurricanes have to learn. The Seminoles especially will challenge the zone on the perimeter after making 16 of 24 field goal attempts from behind the 3-point arc in their Sunday night win over Maryland.

For the season, the Seminoles are shooting 35.2 percent from behind the arc. The Hurricanes are limiting their opponents to 32.4 percent for the season but held Syracuse and North Carolina to a combined 22.2 percent (8-of-36) on 3-pointers.