Shane Larkin

Can Miami really be the second best team in the ACC?

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We all know who the best team in the ACC is.

They just so happen to be the best team — well, at least the No. 1 team — in the country.

That’s Duke.

The title of the second best team in the ACC has been up for grabs, however.

Entering the season, the trendy pick to win the league was NC State, and based on the way that they’ve played of late, that’s still a possibility. Lorenzo Brown has played better of late, Scott Wood finally looked like a dangerous shooter against Stanford, TJ Warren has been a beast and Richard Howell is a double-double machine. But the bad news? Brown has been anything but consistent, CJ Leslie — the Wolfpack’s most talented player — has been their third best front court player, Tyler Lewis doesn’t appear ready to play at the ACC level and the team only goes seven deep.

North Carolina looks like they could end up being even more of a stretch. If the beatdown they took at the hands of Indiana wasn’t enough to convince, the fact that they’ve given up 55 points in a half to UAB and 61 points in a half to East Carolina should be a major cause for concern. (For comparison’s sake, UNC gave up a combined 116 points in those two halves while Georgetown gave up a total of 113 points in three straight wins over Tennessee, Texas and Towson.)

Florida State hasn’t been all that impressive. Maryland’s Alex Len has been sensational and Dez Wells has had a couple of really impressive performances, but until Maryland’s back court play gets more consistent, it will be tough to take the Terps seriously as much more than a tournament team.

That leaves us with Miami, who has won five straight games since they have gotten Durand Scott back into the lineup. Those five wins? At home against Detroit, at home against Michigan State, at UMass, at home against previously undefeated Charlotte (by 31) and, on Tuesday night, by 22 points at Conference USA contender UCF.

Could Miami be the second best team in the ACC?

Well, they have a front line big enough to compete with anyone in the league. Reggie Johnson is a double-double machine that happens to double as a rhino on the block with three-point range. Kenny Kadji is the perfect kind of stretch four that can provide some space for Johnson inside. Shane Larkin might be the most underrated point guard in the country, as he’s averaging 15.9 points, 3.9 assists and shooting 51.9% from three this season. Throw in Durand Scott (who is playing the best basketball of his career), Trey McKinney Jones, Rion Brown and Julian Gamble, and Miami has a balanced attack that features five players averaging double figures.

Miami picked the right season to peak. With the rest of the ACC down, Jim Laranaga has enough talent to make a push to be the second best team in the league.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Duke knocks off No. 13 Louisville in first game of critical four-game stretch

Duke's Grayson Allen (3) and Marshall Plumlee (40) react during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Louisville in Durham, N.C., Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. Duke won 72-65. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
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Grayson Allen scored 16 of his 19 points in the first half and Brandon Ingram added 18 points, 10 boards and four assists as Duke picked up a critical win over No. 13 Louisville in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Monday night, 72-65.

A call this a critical win for the Blue Devils because it kicks off what may be the most important two-week stretch of Duke’s schedule This weekend, the Blue Devils square off with No. 9 Virginia. Next Wednesday, they’re at the Dean Dome to take on No. 7 North Carolina. Four days after that, they head to the Bluegrass State to pay a visit to Louisville.

 

With the way that Duke has been struggling on the defensive end of the floor without Amile Jefferson, that’s a stretch that could derail Duke’s season; entering Monday, all four of those games were losable. But a four-game winning streak — or even going 3-1 in that stretch — could completely change the tenor of what has been a fairly disappointing year for the defending champs, and that’s before they get Jefferson back to 100 percent.

And the difference was defensively, at least in the first half.

I’ve written in this space a number of times about how opponents know what they’re going to get from Duke defensively. Coach K, traditionally, plays half court man-to-man defense, switching every exchange — ball-screen, off-ball pick or simply when two players run by one another — that doesn’t involve the center. In recent years, he’s played some zone in situations where he defense has struggled or, like this season, when he doesn’t have the depth to risk foul trouble. We’ve even seen some 2-2-1 pressure from him of late.

But on Monday night, Duke played straight man-to-man for much of the game, and in the first half, it seemed to fluster the Cardinals. They scored just 24 points in the first 20 minutes, and while Louisville did find a way to break Duke down defensively in the second half — they shot better than 55 percent from the floor after the break — but part of the reason Duke was able to win this game was the lead they built. After a three from Allen opened scoring in the second half, the Blue Devils were up by 14, and while Louisville made a run down the stretch, they could never get control of the game.

Duke is becoming appointment viewing for basketball nerds like me that pay too much attention to X’s-and-O’s to see what kind of wrinkle Coach K is going to put in to try and compensate defensively, so I’m not sure that this performance sticks. But it is worth noting that this was the first time in eight games the Blue Devils gave up less than 1.0 PPP, and the first time since Dec. 19th they did so against an NCAA tournament-caliber team.

As far as Louisville is concerned, you have to tip your hat to those kids. They played their hearts out and fought back from a big deficit in one of the toughest places in the country to play. They did all that three days after their school ripped their hearts out with an NCAA tournament ban for this season.

So good for them. You never know how a team is going to react to something like that, but the Cardinal players showed that they have some serious fight in them.

Iowa State’s starting center Jameel McKay remains suspended

Iowa State forward Jameel McKay celebrates on the court at the end of an NCAA college basketball game against Oklahoma, Monday, Jan. 18, 2016, in Ames, Iowa. Iowa State won 82-77. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
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Steve Prohm announced on Monday that starting center Jameel McKay will not be in the lineup on Wednesday when the Cyclones take on Texas Tech.

“He’ll practice today because I want him in practice,” Prohm said, “but game-wise, he’s suspended.”

McKay did not make the trip to Stillwater with the team on Saturday, where Iowa State beat Oklahoma State, 64-59. Prohm has not gotten into specifics regarding the cause of McKay’s suspension, but it’s reportedly an issue with the way he has been practicing. McKay is dealing with a nagging knee injury, which may play a role in the situation as well.

“My hope is he’ll be with us on Saturday,” Prohm said.