Top seeds Miami, Duke enter ACC tournament amid uncertainty

Miami won the ACC regular season outright and went a combined 7-1 against teams in the top half of the standings. Duke is 18-0 when at full strength and fresh off a road victory over neighborhood rival North Carolina.

Yet the top two seeds for this week's 60th ACC tournament enter the event at curiously uncertain places.

After blazing to a 13-0 start in league play, including a 27-point ambush of Duke, the Hurricanes dropped three of their last five. Losing an epic rematch to the Blue Devils was no cause for alarm, but stumbling at Wake Forest? To Georgia Tech at home?

Were this a program or team with postseason pedigree, such a slide might be dismissed. But Miami has reached only one NCAA tournament in the last 10 years, in 2008, and prior to coach Jim Larranaga's arrival last season had never enjoyed a winning ACC season.


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"I think there was definitely a difference in us for a period of time," Larranaga said Monday on the ACC's weekly media call. "I thought we were very, very highly motivated coming into league play. We had five seniors who are very motivated, very focused.

"(But) I thought after we got to 13-0 in league play, we got a little complacent. Our attention to detail was not as good, our defensive effort was not as good. Communication on the court at the defensive end was not as good. We just didn't execute quite as well."

Seniors Durand Scott, Kenny Kadji, Reggie Johnson, Julian Gamble and Trey McKinney-Jones make Miami the nation's ninth-most experienced team, according to Ken Pomeroy's online statistics. Combined with sophomore point guard Shane Larkin, a first-team All-ACC selection Monday, they form a squad capable of a deep NCAA run — when their collective head is right.

Larranaga sensed it was during the second half of Saturday's 62-49 home victory over Clemson. The Hurricanes outscored the Tigers 37-24 after intermission, limiting them to 38 percent shooting and holding them without a 3-pointer.

"I thought in the second half of our game against Clemson Saturday (that) our energy and attention to detail ratcheted up back to where it had been," Larranaga said. "Hopefully that will continue this week in practice leading up to the tournament. … The second half against Clemson was the best defense we'd played in several weeks."

Miami (24-6, 15-3) plays either Boston College (15-16, 7-11) or Georgia Tech (16-14, 6-12) in Friday's quarterfinals. The tournament's top seed hasn't lost its opening game since 1997, and don't expect that to change, advancing the Hurricanes to a semifinal against either North Carolina State or Virginia.

Similarly, Duke (27-4, 14-4) has a bye into the quarterfinals, where it will face the winner of Thursday's game between Maryland (20-11, 8-10) and Wake Forest (13-17, 6-12). The Blue Devils have won three straight since falling at Virginia, in large measure because of forward Ryan Kelly's return from a foot injury.

Duke was 15-0 when Kelly exited the lineup, 9-4 in his absence. His career-high 36 points against Miami in his first game back will go down in ACC lore, but after three games in eight days, coach Mike Krzyzewski welcomes the extended break before the league tournament.

"The main thing to me is not to overwork them," he said, "but to work them enough to try to get them fresh, (and) also try to get reps so we can become even more familiar with one another. Ryan's been back for three games, but he's only really been back for a couple practices. and those are practices for game preparation."

Krzyzewski has also been navigating a season-long leg injury that has limited guard Seth Curry's practice time. With the prospect of three tournament games in as many days, Krzyzewski will have to closely monitor the effect of Kelly and Curry.

"The one good thing is, his leg, he's gotten better," Krzyzewski said. "You still give him his rest. But he does a little bit more in practice. It's not healed yet, but he's better. We're just trying to take our lead from our medical people, and from Seth.

"We're more optimistic now, still cautious, but more optimistic now than we've been at any time this season."

At their best, Duke and Miami should reach the ACC final Sunday.

At their best, either can win the national championship.

David Teel can be reached at 757-247-4636 or by email at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/ teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP

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