Hola, people. We already spoke with SB Nation's Miami affiliate "State of the U" for our "Behind Enemy Lines" piece to preview tonight's game. However, one of my good friends writes for "Canes Warning", Fansided's Miami-specific blog. We decided to e-mail back and forth a bit about the upcoming game, rip a few jokes at each other's expense, and discuss the state of each school's hoops program. Here's Part One of our two-part interview; the second half is located over at Canes Warning. My words are in bold.
Harry Kroll, Canes Warning: As some of you may have heard, there is a basketball game tonight at the BankUnited Center between two undefeated teams, ranked (as of this writing) within two spots of each other by KenPom. In an unprecedented partnership across rival blog networks, Matt and I have come together in the interest of Illinois and Miami basketball fans everywhere to make a lot of unfunny jokes, shamelessly cross-promote our sites and maybe talk about basketball a little bit too. We apologize in advance to our kind editors who let us do this.
So, Matt, how's everybody feeling over in Champaign? A precocious beaver somehow coached the Illini football team to a bowl game and the hoops squad is 6-0 with a quality win over Baylor! Things seem to be looking up.
Matt: It's been a pretty good week here in Champaign. Sane Illini fans were all rooting for the team and the seniors to finally make it to another bowl game, and it was nice to see that happen. Insane Illini fans were overtly rooting against the team so the aforementioned precocious beaver would get fired, but we don't need to talk about them. Regardless, it's refreshing to finish with the same football record as The U, especially now that they're, uh, back and stuff. Right.
Anyway, basketball. The Illini did have a high quality win over Baylor, managing to put up 62 points against a team with both a strong defense and a particularly slow pace of play. I think the biggest early takeaway from this game and others is that this Illini team is significantly more fun to watch than the previous two years. Illinois has hung their hat on excellent defense recently. While that's always good to have, it appears this team has a bit more balance and quite a bit more shooting ability than the 2013-14 edition.
Harry: While Miami is still working out the kinks on defense, ‘Canes fans can definitely identify with the more fun to watch aspect that you mentioned. Last year, after losing its top six scorers from 2012-2013's best team in program history and postseason conqueror of the Illinois Fighting Illini, Miami played at literally the slowest pace in the entire country (351st in the nation), averaging just 58.5 possessions per game by necessity. Of the guys who attempted piles of them, Miami had two guys who could hit threes with bare minimum consistency. This year, the pace is still pretty slow--up to a whopping 64 possessions per game, good for 298th in the country--but the Hurricanes rank fourth in the country in KenPom's adjusted offensive efficiency, pouring in a scorching 111.5 opponent-adjusted points per 100 possessions. They shoot 46% from beyond the arc as a team and have four guys at 40% or higher with at least twenty attempts. This team is incredibly exciting to watch and it's a breath of fresh air after last year's competitive but offensively-inept squad.
Let's talk newcomers who are making huge differences. Miami has like 3,578 of those on its roster (all numbers approximate), but I've rambled for a while now. Let's hear about the new guys in blue and orange first.
Matt: Illinois has three significant additions to the team this year; two transfers and one freshman. Both transfers, point guard Ahmad Starks and shooting guard Aaron Cosby, start for the Illini and have greatly improved the offensive spacing of a team that really struggled to put the ball in the basket last year. Starks is the primary ball handler in the offense. He's a small, quick guard who tends to dribble the air out of the ball a bit. He also loves step-back jumpers (expect to see his a few times tonight). Cosby is a secondary ball handler and excellent three point shooter. He struggled against Baylor, going zero-for-seven from beyond the arc, but he's somehow still shooting over 38 percent on threes this year. Lastly, there's freshman forward Leron Black. Black is an aggressive rebounder and ridiculous athlete. He's still working on his scoring, but he makes one or two "Wow." plays every game.
For Miami, I know Angel Rodriguez has been a godsend (pun intended). How has his play (and the play of other new guys) helped this team perhaps get back to the level of their squad two years ago? You know, the one that
lost to beat Illinois in the tournament?
Harry: Getting back to the level of the team from two years ago is not going to happen: that squad was one of the better college basketball teams of recent memory even if it laid an egg against Marquette in the Sweet 16 and remains the only team from outside the state of North Carolina to win the ACC regular season and tournament championship in the same year. Those accomplishments are no small potatoes in the best conference in the country. (Yes, the ACC is better than the Big Ten this year. Last year, I would say the Big Ten was clearly superior but that is no longer the case. But I digress.)
Where to even start with the newcomers? Miami returns just three players of consequence from last year's team, so most players are fresh faces here in Coral Gables. Nationally, as you mentioned, Angel Rodriguez is receiving a lot of attention--mostly because of this dagger to beat Florida on the road in UM's second game of the season--and it's completely deserved. The Kansas State transfer shoots lights out, provides pretty solid perimeter defense and facilitates the offense immaculately. However, the best player on this team is former Texas Longhorn Sheldon McClellan, a future NBA prospect with scary athleticism and an extremely polished all around game. After a bit of a slow start, he now leads UM with 16.7 points per game (shooting 60% from the floor and 40% from beyond the arc), while also hauling down six rebounds, good for second on the team. He also provides very solid defense. Outside of those two, three freshman--true freshmen Omar Sherman and Ja'Quan Newton and redshirt freshman Deandre Burnett, the latter two of which were extremely hyped recruits--provide Miami with scoring off the bench. James Palmer can stroke it from outside as well as a stretch four. Suffice it to say that this team looks nothing like last year's outfit.
So, we've laid out newcomers. Illinois has some talent coming back from last year though, notably with Rayvonte Rice, Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn. Coupled with the transfers that you covered, this has to get Illinois to at least the top half of a wide open (outside of Wisconsin) Big Ten and back to the NCAA Tournament, right?
Matt: The tournament is absolutely both the goal and expectation for the Illini this year. Nnanna Egwu almost guarantees the team will have a decent defense by himself, and the added talent on offense plus the development of Rice/Hill/Nunn is certainly cause for optimism regarding the offense. Both units should combine to make this team finish somewhere between third and eighth in the Big Ten; personally I'm hoping for a fifth place finish at this point which would certainly put the Illini in the tournament.
Miami basically began their season with that gigantic, emotional victory over Florida. UF has faltered a bit since that game, losing twice more (admittedly to good teams). How do their early struggles affect your view of this team? Is Miami going places in the ACC or is this early season success a bit of a mirage brought on by unsustainably hot three-point shooting, an unsustainably cold opponent free throw shooting percentage, and an easy schedule comprised of five bad teams and the underwhelming Gators? Just a few ideas.
This snarky quote ends the first half of my conversation about Miami basketball with Harry Kroll of Canes Warning. For the second half, check out his article on Canes Warning via this link. Thanks for reading, and I hope you guys enjoyed.