After battling through a close game with Temple in the semifinal round of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off on Friday, the Butler Bulldogs will face the boiling-hot Miami Hurricanes in the tournament championship on Sunday evening. Rather than run one of our normal 3-Point Previews, we partnered up with our pal Jerry Steinberg of SB Nation's Miami blog for a little "Get to Know Your Opponent" exercise. I'll post their responses to our questions below, and you can find my responses to theirs on the State of the U site here.
BECB: The Hurricanes have had an insane margin of victory so far through the first two games of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. What have you been most impressed with so far from this team?
SOTU: Balance, depth, and focus. They have so many weapons, yet have played so unselfishly. And they are playing with a chip on their collective shoulders, undoubtedly still upset that they were snubbed from the Big Dance last season (I mean, really, how do you leave a team that wins at Duke by 20 out of the field?). Right now their length and intensity also make them formidable defensively. Sheldon McClellan and Davon Reed are both in the 6'6 range with quick feet and active hands, and seven-footer Tonye Jekiri is an established rim protector and force on the glass. McClellan is the star on offense, but on any given day/night Angel Rodriguez, Reed, Jekiri, James Palmer, Ja'Quan Newton, or Ivan Cuz Uceda (to name just a few) can have big games. They just come at you in waves. And as usual, they are very well coached. This is a very deep and scary team.
BECB: Sheldon McClellan has been the engine that drives the Miami attack so far this season, what about McClellan makes him such a special offensive player?
SOTU: Going back to his days at Texas, McClellan has always been a spectacular athlete (reported 44-inch vertical leap). But now his shooting has really picked up. McClellan can nail shots off the dribble or when others create open looks for him. His confidence in his jumper is through the roof right now. However, he's really at his best when he mixes in attacks to the rim. His handles are good enough to run the point (something he does on occasion now) and with his athleticism and touch around the basket, he's more than capable of finishing, even though contact. The only downside I think we saw last year from McClellan was that he occasionally deferred a bit too much to teammates. But now that he is playing more aggressively, everything is coming together for him.
BECB: What other big names do Butler fans need to know on the Miami roster going into Sunday's showdown?
SOTU: Miami really does have a plethora of weapons. The guy I think who should be the #2 scorer behind McClellan is Reed. Reed shot a ridiculous 45% from 3 last year, and he's good enough going to the rim to poster dunk you on any given possession. Davon Reed is going to be an NBA player, mark it down. Right now he defers a lot to his teammates, but there are nights where he is aggressive and unstoppable. Most hoops fans probably already know about Rodriguez, but his understudy Newton is blossoming before out eyes. The 6'3" Philly product is a former Top 50 recruit. As a freshman last year he displayed his ability to take the ball to the basket. Now he's showing off an improved jump shot, skilled medium game, and excellent passing skills as well. Additionally, 6'10" stretch four Uceda, junkyard dog type and Oklahoma State transfer PF Kamari Murphy, and freshman do-it-all forward Anthony "Amp" Lawrence Jr. are a few names to know.
BECB: The Hurricanes are just three years removed from drawing a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. How does this team compare to that 2012-13 squad?
SOTU: Excellent question. While I am not yet ready to anoint this year's version, they have a chance to accomplish as much if not more than the one from three years back that was generally considered the best team in program history. The 2012-13 'Canes had a huge advantage over this year's at point guard. Shane Larkin was one of the best players in the country that year. Rodriguez/Newton are good, but not yet on the Larkin level yet. On the wings, this year's version is a little more explosive and versatile. McClellan/Reed/Palmer/Lawrence are a slight improvement over Durand Scott/Trey McKinney-Jones/Rion Brown. And that is saying a lot considering Scott was the ACC Defensive Player of the Year that season. Jekiri is also much more of a threat down low than the combination of the freshman version of himself along with Julian Gamble and a less than 100% Reggie Johnson. The previous version had Kenny Kadji as well, a guy I still can't figure why/how he isn't in the NBA, who is way more athletic than Uceda. But this year's version is a little more well rounded and perhaps less top-heavy in my opinion. It will be fun to see if they can accomplish more or less than what that UM squad did.
BECB: As much as we may love our Big East teams, it's probably safe to say that that the ACC is the most talented conference in college basketball today. Give us your prediction for conference champ, and how many teams do you think will make the tournament?
SOTU: In my preseason conference preview, I picked UNC as the champs, with Miami a close second. I got some negative feedback for picking the 'Canes that high. A few games in, I think I may have picked them one slot too low. Virginia, Duke, FSU, and N.C. State all have early season blemishes and UNC is still not whole minus point guard Marcus Paige. Meanwhile the Hurricanes are punishing the opposition. It's still early though and while UNC/Miami are still my favorites, a young Blue Devils team, a veteran UVA squad, or a surprise like the very talented Seminoles could all still emerge. I like 8 teams from the ACC making the big dance: UNC, Miami, Duke, Virginia, FSU, Louisville, N.C. State, and Notre Dame.
BECB: Both of these teams are coming in very hot to Sunday's contest. How do you think this one plays out?
SOTU: I am very wary of Butler's explosive abilities. Tyler Lewis looks very sound at the point, Kellen Dunham can score at will, and Roosevelt Jones remains ever the glue guy who can call his own number when needed. This is a very good team, no doubt. But Miami is on a mission. The memory of last year's snub has them treating every game like a "must win." That fire, along with their depth makes them one of the best teams in the country right now. Miami wins in a high scoring contest, 87-82.
Thanks again to Jerry and the State of the U team for partnering up with us in preparation of tonight's championship contest. Enjoy the game!