As regular season games go, this is a pretty big one. Having played just twice in the last two weeks, and not at all in the last six days since their less-than-artistic win over Georgia Tech, the top-ranked Blue Devils head down to Coral Gables to face conference leader Miami on Wednesday night at 7 PM. The Canes, 13-3 overall and 4-0 in conference, have joined the national rankings this week, coming in at #25. It's their first time being ranked since January of 2010. With a win, Duke will tie Miami at 4-1 in the conference, with the re-match to be held in March in Durham. A Canes victory, however, would provide them a two-game cushion with one win over Duke in hand.
Historically speaking, this series has been all Duke, as the Devils have won 15 of the 18 matchups. Even when UM has been ranked when playing Duke, which has occurred three times, they've lost each time. The last was in 2009. Since Miami brought back its basketball program after a long hiatus, the teams have faced each other 16 times when Duke was ranked. Duke has won 14 of those, but one of the two UM wins was last season, in Cameron.
But Miami has never beaten a team ranked #1 in the nation. They've faced Duke twice when the Blue Devils were the nation's top-ranked squad. In 1988 Duke won by the preposterous score of 117-102. Oh yeah, Danny Ferry happened to toss in 58 points in that one. In 2011 the #1 Devils prevailed 74-63, led by Nolan Smith's 28.
As alluded to above, however, the Hurricanes beat the Blue Devils in overtime in their last meeting, last February, in Cameron no less. It was a strange game. Coach K started Josh Hairston and Ty Thornton, along with Andre Dawkins, Austin Rivers, and Mason Plumlee. Seth Curry came off the bench to light Miami up with 22 points, while Rivers had 20. Mason had 13 boards, 6 points, and 4 turnovers. Quinn Cook, Ryan Kelly, and Miles Plumlee all got at least 24 minutes off the bench too.
It was a game in which Miami took a 16 point second half lead only to see the Blue Devils fight back, and it was nip and tuck over the last several minutes. Two factors tipped the balance in Miami's favor: Duke had no answer for UM big (and I mean big) man Reggie Johnson, who finished with 27 points and 12 boards. And in the overtime, Duke missed six straight free throws. That left some jawbones on the floor.
But Miami deserved to win. They outrebounded Duke; they outscored the Devils 38-26 in the paint, and held Duke to a season-low 38% from the field. Miami 4-man Kenny Kadji burned the Devils, hitting 4 of 5 from three-point range en route to 15 points in support of Johnson. Freshman point guard Shane Larkin (son of Barry) was not at all intimidated by Duke or Cameron, and was a steadying influence throughout. Kid was impressive.
But this is a new year. It's Miami's second season under coach Jim Larranaga (there's supposed to be one of those little squigglies over the n -- it should be pronounced Lar-anya-ga, like the cigar) since he arrived from George Mason after 14 years in Fairfax. He led GMU to five NCAA tournaments, and took them to the 2006 Final Four. Which means he's the only ACC coach other than K and Roy to take a team to the Final Four. Larranaga won 20 games in his first year in Coral Gables, including nine ACC wins, which Miami had never achieved before. Not bad for the first year, huh?
Didn't I say I was going to discuss this year though? OK, this year. Like I said, Miami is 13-3 overall, 4-0 in the conference. They're 7-0 at home. The Canes' out of conference schedule seems kind of lukewarm, rated #65 in the country, but that's actually one of the best of the top teams, as only two teams rated above Miami in KenPom's overall ratings have faced tougher out of conference schedules -- Duke and Gonzaga.
Miami's best win was their ACC-Big 10 challenge victory over Michigan State, an eight point win at home. That was solid. The other wins were over Stetson, Jacksonville, Detroit, UMass, Charlotte, Central Florida, Hawaii, and LaSalle. Not exactly murderer's row, but at least all of those, other than the opener against Stetson, were double digit wins. Nonconference defeats included an inexplicable 12 point loss to Florida Gulf Coast (Duke beat the Eagles by 21 five days later), a 19 point trouncing by Arizona, and an overtime loss to Indiana State on Christmas Day. The latter two occurred in a Christmas tournament in Hawaii, and the Canes were by all accounts exhausted.
The four ACC wins have come over Georgia Tech on the road by 13, again on the road at UNC by 9, at home against Maryland by 7, and then last Wednesday's one pointer at BC. Three of the four on the road. OK, not bad.
The Canes currently are #19 in the KenPom overall ratings. And this is all without Reggie Johnson, who fractured a thumb in Hawaii on December 21 and isn't expected back until late February or maybe even early March.
This is a veteran team. With Johnson out, Larranaga has been largely playing six guys, and four of them are seniors. (Johnson is a senior too.) Shooting guard Durand Scott leads the team in scoring at 13.8 ppg. The 6'5" 203 pounder out of the Bronx is a streaky shooter and a streaky player, but one way or another he gets double digits points just about every night out. And he is nothing if not tough. He is a physical player, one who could make life uncomfortable for Seth Curry and/or Rasheed Sulaimon -- at both ends. The guy everyone seems to be most concerned about, though, is senior forward Kenny Kadji. The 6'11" 242 pound Kadji, often described as a "stretch four" (that term is starting to bug) is at 12.6 ppg and a team-leading 7.3 rebounds per game. Kadji can affect a game in similar ways as can Ryan Kelly. He can play inside if necessary, but what makes him very difficult to handle is that, at his size, he steps out and shoots the long ball very well. Cue the 4-for-5 three-point shooting last year in Cameron. Kadji has really improved over the course of his career at Miami, and is a guy that must be game-planned for. Teams that do not make him a priority often regret that decision. Kadji has improved his numbers since Johnson went down, too. Since the injury to the big man, Kadji is scoring just shy of 15 ppg, and grabbing 7.8 boards, and is blocking almost two shots per game. He has bagged four double-doubles this year.
Senior Trey McKinney-Jones starts on the wing. The 6'5" 220 pounder averages just shy of 10 ppg, and four rebounds. He likes to shoot the three, and is hitting them at about a 40% clip. He hit five 3-balls in the big win over Michigan State. With the injury to Reggie Johnson, Julian Gamble, a 6'10" 250 lb senior out of Durham Southern, moved into the starting lineup. Since doing so, the big guy is scoring almost 9 ppg and is getting 7.5 boards. Prior to Johnson's injury, he was at 4.3 and 1.8. Dude has stepped up. Just ask Carolina, who Gamble hit for 14 and 6, on 7 of 10 shooting, along with three blocks.
The only non-senior in the starting lineup is point guard Shane Larkin, now a soph. The 5'11" 176 pounder was ACC-All Freshman last year, and as he now has a year and a half of experience under his belt, he's operating with supreme confidence. He's scoring 12 per game, dishing four assists, shooting 45% from the field and 41% from 3-point land. He's pretty consistent too, scoring in double digits in 12 of Miami's 16 games. However, he has struggled with his shot in ACC play, thus far hitting only 36% in conference. He's a solid ballhandler, though, and he's a kid who has the complete confidence and respect of his teammates. He'll have the ball in his hands a lot, even in crunch time, which is impressive for the only soph on a team full of seniors.
The primary sub for Miami at this time is Rion Brown. The 6'6" 220 pound junior logs 24 minutes per game and averages about 6 points, but he is capable of much more. Georgia Tech learned that the hard way, as Brown nailed 22 in 23 minutes against the Jackets on 9 of 11 shooting, including 4 of 6 from 3-point range. 6'6" Erik Swoope and 6'10" Nigerian Raphael Akpejiori see inconsistent minutes off the bench -- ten or 12 one game, than none or one minute the next.
Despite having a number of offensive weapons, overall the Canes have not been a great offensive team this year. They are only averaging 67 ppg and only shooting 44%, and only 34% from three. Granted, their best interior player has missed half the season, and this has undoubtedly affected the quality of the looks the perimeter guys have gotten, but still, you've got to be playing pretty good defense to beat teams when you're only scoring 67 ppg.
And they are. The Canes have been very good defensively. Of their 16 opponents, 12 have shot worse than 41% from the field. Only two have shot better than 45%, and overall, Miami is holding opponents to 37% shooting, including 31% from 3-point land. Only two teams have shot better than 45% against UM all year. Teams are averaging short of 60 ppg against Miami; eleven of the 16 opponents have failed to reach 60.
But make no mistake about it. The loss of Johnson has changed the way this Miami team plays. Without Johnson in the middle, Kenny Kadji has to play more inside. Sure, Gamble has played pretty well, but Kadji has to go inside more, and he's less effective there than when he can freely roam the perimeter as he can do when Johnson is in the post. Less mismatches for him down low too, as opposed to when he's raining 3 pointers from the outside. Sound kinda like somebody on Duke's roster, currently out "indefinitely?"
In fact, the injuries to Kelly and Johnson really have mirror image effects on their respective teams. Without Johnson, Kadji has to play more inside, limiting the impact of his shooting in many games, and forcing some of their less effective shooters to bomb away. Without Kelly to stretch the floor, teams are collapsing and doubling more often and more effectively on Mason Plumlee, limiting his ability to take over games. Expect Larranaga to do the same, and to force Mason to either play through contact or to make quick, smart decisions out of the doubleteams. If he hits Josh Hairston or Amile Jefferson with passes in the key, can those guys finish plays? And what about the fact that Duke's perimeter shooters will have less room to operate without Kelly to relieve pressure? It's an issue, one that is exacerbated when one of the opponent's guards is a strong perimeter defender like Durand Scott.
So those are all issues. But you know what? I think the Blue Devils, even without Kelly, have a better team than Miami -- Miami without Reggie Johnson in the middle. Quinn Cook is moving his feet very well defensively and should be able to contain Larkin. Scott is a tough cover for Seth Curry because of the disparity in size and strength, and may be tough for Rasheed Sulaimon too because of experience, but Scott is unlikely to go off and beat you on his own. Kadji could, but I would expect Duke's defense to really be focused on him, concentrating on denying him on the wing, staying with him when others drive so as to not allow kickouts to Kadji for open jumpers, and to try to force him to put the ball on the floor.
At the other end, Larkin is going to have to prove that he can contain Quinn Cook's penetration. I don't know that he's going to be real successful against Cook. Remember, other than Austin Rivers, Duke didn't have a penetrator last year. Rasheed Sulaimon broke out of his slump against Georgia Tech. Seth Curry is well-rested and has shown that he can get that jumpshot off even against tough defenders and even with just a little space to do so. And his shooting has been excellent. Mason Plumlee is going to be working against Miami's backup center. Sure, Gamble has played well, but he's a guy that Mason should be able to put in some work against and draw some fouls. That would be big trouble for Miami, because if Kadji has to come over and guard Mason, then he's really going to be expending energy there that they'd rather have him spend on offense.
Miami is off to an excellent start this year, but I think they're going to get a reality check on Wednesday night. They're good, but they're not good enough to take a two game advantage over Duke for the ACC regular season crown, especially without Johnson. They're experienced, but so is Duke, even without Kelly, and I think that experience is going to help the Blue Devils approach this game with focus and intensity, motivating them to get off to a good start (for once) and send a message that Duke isn't the #1 team in the nation for nothing.