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Miami looking to trip up No. 25 Pitt with zone defense in ACC matchup

| Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014, 10:00 p.m.
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Trae Golden (23) of Georgia Tech reaches in for the ball against Garrius Adams of Miami on Jan. 18, 2014, in Atlanta, Georgia.
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Manu Lecomte (left) of the Miami Hurricanes attempts to pass the ball around the defense of Rakeem Christmas of Syracuse during the first half at the Carrier Dome on Jan. 4, 2014, in Syracuse, New York.

Miami coach Jim Larranaga warns his Hurricanes every day that their next opponent in the expanded ACC “is different than the last team we played.”

Pitt coach Jamie Dixon is giving his Panthers the same instructions for their trip to Miami, where so much has changed not just in the decade since their last visit but from last season to this one.

The Hurricanes won their first ACC regular-season title last year, becoming the first team other than Duke or North Carolina to win it outright since 2003.

Now, Miami (11-10, 2-6) is tied for 13th place in the ACC as it hosts No. 25 Pitt (18-4, 6-3) at 7 p.m. Wednesday at BankUnited Center.

It is the Panthers' first visit to Coral Gables since Jan. 10, 2004, an 84-80 overtime victory when both teams were in the Big East.

“It will be our first trip down there in a long time,” said Dixon, whose Panthers lead the all-time series 17-16. “We're looking forward to going down there and renewing a rivalry game for us.”

Where Pitt is coming off back-to-back losses to Duke and Virginia at Petersen Events Center, Miami is 0-4 in the ACC and 5-6 overall at home this season. The Hurricanes have lost three consecutive conference games, a possibility Larranaga was smart enough to foresee. He scheduled a nonconference home game against Norfolk State to set Miami up for a 64-49 victory Saturday.

“We wanted a win,” Larranaga said. “We looked at our schedule and we played Duke, we played Syracuse and we were at Maryland. We thought maybe we could use another game and hopefully bounce back with a win. Not saying that we thought we were going to lose those, but we knew we were going to be the underdog in each of those games. In preparation, you really need wins to keep your confidence going.”

Miami suffered an unexpected blow when point guard Shane Larkin, named the 2012-13 ACC Player of the Year, declared early for the NBA Draft. That forced Larranaga to start Manu Lecomte, a 5-foot-11 freshman, so the coach switched to a matchup zone defense to overcome his defensive shortcomings.

It's a different defense than anything Pitt has seen this season, combining elements of a man-to-man defense within a zone concept. Having 6-6 wings in Rion Brown and Garrius Adams helps the Hurricanes offset Lecomte's size.

“We haven't seen it much this year. We did see it more in the Big East, much more zone in the Big East,” Dixon said. “It's something Coach Larranaga isn't used to playing but is playing now because it's best for his personnel. They guard the perimeter well with three wings and play more man-to-man on the ball than a 2-3 zone like Syracuse plays.”

Miami's zone should test the Panthers, whose 31.9 percent shooting from the field in the 48-45 loss to Virginia on Sunday was their second worst of the season. Pitt shot 38.3 percent against Syracuse's zone.

“I think we're good against the zone,” Dixon said. “It's something that we prepare for, but also we're built to have success against because we pass it well and we shoot it well. But, at the same time, it will be somewhat different.”

Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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