No. 9 Miami, No. 2 Duke ready for ACC tourney push
Miami rolled through most of the Atlantic Coast Conference season and coasted to the program's first regular-season championship. The ninth-ranked Hurricanes enter this week's ACC tournament as the No. 1 seed and looking to add another crown to their trophy case.
To do that they're going to have to capture their first tournament title in the home state of No. 2 Duke, which has won 10 of the past 14 ACC tournament titles.
Miami coach Jim Larranaga said winning both the regular-season and tournament titles has been a goal all season.
"So now we have a very clear target and for us, we hope it will be a three-day event — Friday, Saturday, Sunday," Larranaga said after Wednesday's practice. "But we know to win it, we're going to have to play very well and beat some very good teams."
The tournament opens Thursday in the Greensboro Coliseum, starting with eighth-seeded Boston College and ninth-seeded Georgia Tech. The top four seeds all earned byes into Friday's quarterfinals.
The Hurricanes (24-6, 15-3) were picked to finish fifth in the preseason, but they won their first 13 league games and reached No. 2 nationally. They stumbled late but still finished a game ahead of the second-seeded Blue Devils (27-4, 14-4) for the outright title and the tournament's top seed.
The Hurricanes are trying to become only the third team from outside the state of North Carolina to win the tournament in 20 years, joining Maryland in 2004 and Florida State last year.
Miami has reached the semifinals only once before, as a No. 12 seed after a pair of upsets before falling in a close game to top-seeded Duke here in 2010.
"There has been a lot of adversity, going from last in the ACC to a team with a lot of expectations and not really living up to them, and then this season people not thinking we were as good as we turned out to be," senior Julian Gamble said.
"We still have work to do. We're perfectionists. We want to play our absolute best basketball and we don't want to make mental mistakes, especially going into these tournaments."
The Blue Devils are still working to integrate senior forward Ryan Kelly back into the lineup after he was out for two months with a foot injury.
Kelly returned with a career-high 36 points in a home win against Miami on March 2, and Duke is 18-0 with him this year as opposed to 9-4 without him.
"We're getting the feel back, but he was out two months, so it's not going to just happen overnight," point guard Quinn Cook said. "We're getting the feel back. Practices have been great just with him. We're getting back to where we were before he got hurt. We still got a long ways to go but we're just taking baby steps to where we need to be."
For third-seeded North Carolina, the challenge is to prevent last weekend's ugly loss to the rival Blue Devils from lingering into this weekend.
The Tar Heels had won six straight with a four-guard lineup, but Duke ran out to a 14-0 lead in Saturday's rivalry game and never looked back to drain some of UNC's momentum.
"I don't think you can let one game crush you and lead to another one and another one and another one," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "I think that does happen with some teams who struggle quite a bit, but we had been playing pretty well, so hopefully we'll handle it that way."
Virginia is the No. 4 seed for the second straight year and could use a good showing in Greensboro to bolster its NCAA tournament chances. The Cavaliers edged Maryland in overtime Sunday to secure their first-round bye.
"Nobody knows exactly what's needed today to make the NCAA tournament or not," Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. "But (the players are) aware that we could certainly continue to position ourselves better if we can be victorious, without a doubt."
North Carolina State is seeded fifth after being the preseason favorite for the first time in nearly four decades. The Wolfpack started 3-0 in ACC play but played inconsistently all year and blew a chance to secure a first-round bye by losing at Florida State on Saturday.
N.C. State faces 12th-seeded Virginia Tech and ACC player of the year Erick Green — the nation's leading scorer at 25.4 points per game — in Thursday's first round.
"It's crunch time," Wolfpack senior Scott Wood said, "If we're not ready to play now, we're not working hard enough."
Among the lower seeds, the reigning champion and sixth-seeded Seminoles face No. 11 seed Clemson, while seventh-seeded Maryland faces No. 10 seed Wake Forest on Thursday.
If the season's scores are any indication, it should be a competitive tournament.
For the second straight year, the ACC had 40 league matchups decided by five or fewer points, according to STATS LLC. That number is higher than any total from the previous 10 seasons.
"I do think it's open," Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. "You look at the top four or five seeds, are they clearly better than the rest of us? Maybe not, but they have the talent and the upperclassmen to get it done here this weekend."