During a recent week, Miami (Fl.) faced North Carolina and Virginia, two top-10 programs who sit on opposite ends of the tempo spectrum. The Tar Heels play fast. The Cavaliers play slow. Each team scores with elite efficiency.
Miami associate head coach Chris Caputo, the staff’s defensive coordinator, had the challenge of crafting each game plan as the Hurricanes tried to keep pace in the Atlantic Coast Conference race.
Caputo has worked for Miami coach Jim Larranaga for 14 years, the last 11 as an assistant. He planned scouting reports for Larranaga during George Mason’s incredible run to the Final Four in 2006, followed his boss to Miami in April 2011 and was elevated to his current position last May.
Widely considered one of the nation's top assistants, Caputo balances his defensive responsibilities with helping to manage the daily operations of the program. Typically that means supporting Larranaga by putting each current Hurricane in the best position to be successful. That can mean spending time with a player for an extended video session, hitting the gym for additional shooting or making sure the player handles classwork.
Such a hectic schedule leaves scant time for his wife, Julie, who also works, and their daughter Lily, who will be two years old in August.
“You have to try to spend quality time with family,” he said. “A lot of coaches become problem solvers for their guys. How do we help guys do all the things they want to do? That’s a daily thing. It’s almost like you have 13 children (laughs). It can take a lot of your focus away from your family.”
Maintaining a daily routine helps Caputo keep a semblance of balance. He feeds and dresses his daughter in the morning before dropping her off at daycare. Sometimes there's time to take a walk in the afternoon. But it’s not easy.
“You have to have a wife who is understanding,” he said. “It’s such a different world.”
For this edition of the Hurricanes, it’s a world of opportunity.
They beat Louisville on Saturday to join UNC atop the ACC.. The teams are tied at 12-4 entering the final week, although the Tar Heels hold the tiebreaker because they won the lone regular season matchup.
Caputo spends little time worrying about other teams this time of year. He’s more concerned with Miami’s poor defensive rebounding statistics (last in the ACC in conference games, allowing opponents to scoop 35 percent of missed shots). Helping the players understand the importance of improving in that area is more important than the standings or scouting reports for any team other than Louisville, who the Hurricanes play host to Saturday.
“I spend a lot of time watching us defensively,” said Caputo, who relinquished the scouting report duty to assistant Adam Fisher this season. “You’re managing quality control of your defense, looking at the statistics and trying to motivate them … helping coach and other assistants as far as game planning … what are the themes we’re looking for?”
Honing that razor sharp focus also means that recruiting - the sustenance of any college basketball program - takes a slight back seat as the calendar flips to January. Sure, the Hurricanes staff keeps tabs on the top 10 three-man recruiting class they landed in the fall and the Australian guard they added in January, however, this year’s team and the road ahead takes precedence.
“Especially with a good team, we’re not going to miss practice,” Caputo said. “When you’re recruiting guys do you have the ability to tell those guys when you’re here, we’re not going to be running around in Jan and Feb chasing the next group of guys? We’re going to be here supporting you.”
Now in their fifth season in Miami, the brand is established. The program sold all season tickets for the first time in history. The Hurricanes have shown they can compete with and beat the bluebloods from Tobacco Road. Despite last week’s 25-point loss in Chapel Hill, the Canes are 8-6 vs. Duke and North Carolina during Larranaga’s tenure.
Caputo has never experienced a losing record in 14 seasons with Larranaga and learned plenty that he’ll take with him when he becomes a head coach, which could happen soon.
“I think he does an unbelievable job with the players,” Caputo said. “He gives guys a lot of freedom to be who they are and play the way they can play best, but yet there’s also a level of discipline.”
True to form, Miami is among the nation’s best offensive teams yet again, relying on a relentless ball-screen offense that keeps defenders on their heels. The Hurricanes are top 50 in effective field goal percentage (53.8) and turnover rate (15.8), scoring in multiple ways despite facing a slew of zone defenses in conference play.
“They don’t abuse that freedom because he’s taught them to value the ball, he’s taught them to understand good shots and what a good shot for them is,” he said. “That’s where we’ve been able to have success down the stretch or in different environments.”
Then, it was off to another meeting for Caputo. The daily routine is rigorous this time of year for a Division I assistant, but the reward at the end can be unforgettable.