No. 1 Duke (16-1, 3-1 in the ACC) hopes to forget the ghost of Hurricanes past when it takes on No. 25 Miami (13-3, 4-0) Wednesday night in Coral Gables, Fla.
When the teams met at Cameron Indoor Stadium last year, the Hurricanes won in an overtime thriller, even after Duke rallied to earn the bonus basketball. The Blue Devils, then ranked No. 7 in the nation, got swept off their feet by 6-foot-10, 284-pound big man Reggie Johnson, who scored a career-high 27 points for Miami.
The Hurricanes, however, will be without Johnson’s powerful force this Wednesday due to a thumb injury. Despite the fifth-year senior’s absence, Blue Devil head coach Mike Krzyzewski knows that his team must not overlook Miami—they also feature a lot of other talent, especially in sixth-year senior Julian Gamble, who has stepped up in the paint in Johnson’s stead.
“They’ve played great basketball with [Julian] Gamble…. He’s really been a key for them,” Krzyzewski said in his Monday ACC teleconference. “The thing they do so well with their big guys is they protect their basket so well, and that’s why they’ve been a really good defensive team…. They’re accustomed to playing together, and they’ve adjusted really well with a key guy out…. I’m sure they’d like to have [Johnson] back, but they’re playing pretty well without him.”
Even though the Hurricanes are without one of their best players, Duke will also be without one of its go-to-guys on Wednesday: Senior forward Ryan Kelly. Kelly, who has not suited up for the Blue Devils since the Jan. 8 Clemson game due to a foot injury, played an integral role for the Blue Devils.
“Ryan is a big loss for us—not just offensively but in so many aspects of the game,” Duke assistant coach Jeff Capel said. “We always knew how important he is to us but you realize it even more when he’s not out there…. He’s older, knows the game plan on defense and simple things like helping us get the ball inbounds. When teams pressure, he is the guy who takes [the ball] out for us.”
In the senior captain’s absence, however, the Blue Devils have seen increased intensity from junior Josh Hairston and freshman Amile Jefferson. The two big men will need to bring that energy to Wednesday night’s matchup at the Bank United Center.
“We need [Jefferson], Hairston and Marshall [Plumlee] to step up,” Capel said. “When you lose a guy like Ryan you really need everyone to step up. Everyone on the team has to go to another level and we think that our guys are prepared to do that.”
Krzyzewski knows that replacing Kelly is an impossible feat, but he was keen to praise Jefferson’s energy and enthusiasm that he brings to the floor.
“Amile is a good player,” Krzyzewski said. “He doesn’t have the playing time or the experience that Ryan does, and he has a different skill set. The main thing that Ryan gives us besides his experience is he can score. He’s one of the best scorers. Whoever we put in that spot is never going to be able to duplicate that. But Amile can be a good defender, screener [and] offensive rebounder, and he can give us a lot of energy.”
Speaking of freshmen, Duke’s Rasheed Sulaimon had been in an offensive funk prior to the Georgia Tech game, so Krzyzewski and his staff decided not to start the standout youngster against the Yellow Jackets.
Sulaimon responded with his highest scoring output in nearly a month, recording 15 points on 5-of-8 shooting.
“I think [benching him to start the game] was necessary,” Capel said. “He hadn’t been playing as well, so he lost the right to start. I thought he handled it very well and in a very mature way. He approached it in that he was going to come out and fight…. He did some really good things against Georgia Tech.”
Sulaimon and the Blue Devils will be playing in front of a sold-out crowd Wednesday night, but that is definitely not something that they are unfamiliar with.
Duke’s lone loss of the season was to N.C. State in the team’s first road game of the season.
“You know what, we always have a good atmosphere wherever we play,” Krzyzewski said. “Wednesday will be no different than any other game we play except that we’re playing an outstanding team.”