Just more than a month ago, Duke and Miami lugged identical 2-3 conference records into a January battle at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and the Blue Devils used a 20-0 second-half run to fend off the Hurricanes.
This time around, a lot has changed—both teams have taken off and climbed several spots in the ACC standings, setting up an intriguing battle with the regular season winding down.
After seeing its seven-game winning streak halted at Syracuse Wednesday thanks to a buzzer-beater by John Gillon, No. 10 Duke heads south to take on the Hurricanes Saturday at 4 p.m. at the Watsco Center in Coral Gables, Fla. The Orange desperately needed the victory to save their NCAA tournament chances, which Blue Devil head coach Mike Krzyzewski said put his team was in a tough spot—and it will face similar circumstances again Saturday, with Miami trailing Duke by just a single game in the ACC standings.
“During this time, you’re going to face teams that just inherently should be hungrier than you, and then you have to try to be as hungry. That’s a challenge,” Krzyzewski said after the game Wednesday. “It’s more of a challenge when we’re playing guys that are hurt, because there’s a part of them that would like to do only so much to win. It’s not a bad attitude, but just human nature.”
Coupled with No. 8 North Carolina’s win against No. 7 Louisville, the Blue Devils’ loss Wednesday created a logjam near the top of the conference standings, and four teams are now tied for second place in the ACC with 10-5 records. With the Tar Heels holding a comfortable two-game lead with three to play, those four 10-5 teams—Duke, the Cardinals, Florida State and Notre Dame—are likely fighting for the last three double-bye slots in the conference tournament.
But Miami (19-8, 9-6) is sitting just one game back of the four-team bunch with games against both the Blue Devils and the Seminoles remaining, meaning the Hurricanes could easily play their way into a top-four seed with a pair of big wins.
“This is one of the best leagues in the country and we can’t let up because we go down to Miami in 48 hours and play a really good, hungry Miami team,” graduate student Amile Jefferson said. “We have to move on.”
Since losing at Cameron—Duke’s first win against Miami in three years—Hurricane head coach Jim Larrañaga’s squad has picked up victories against then-No. 9 North Carolina and then-No. 18 Virginia, plus a near-upset at then-No.4 Louisville.
Miami has won three straight even as point guard Ja’Quan Newton served a suspension for violating team rules. But Newton—who scored 15 points against the Blue Devils last year in Coral Gables—will be back on the floor for Saturday’s contest hungry to lead the team again.
In the past few weeks, Duke (22-6, 10-5) has also gotten its full complement of players back, although Krzyzewski has stuck to a seven-man rotation, eschewing the depth many thought the Blue Devils would have at the start of the year. Relying heavily on so few players has made Duke vulnerable to foul trouble—and that was the case again Wednesday when Luke Kennard and Grayson Allen had to play big minutes in the second half with four fouls, limiting their ability to play aggressively.
“You just adjust. They have to be smarter. We were playing with three guys with four fouls and that’s just what happens in a game. There’s no game plan,” Krzyzewski said. “For me, it went exactly right except the end, we were supposed to hit the shot and they were supposed to miss and we were supposed to win, but they screwed up my game plan.”
As the Blue Devils have started to find their groove on the floor, the growth of freshman Jayson Tatum as a more efficient scorer and all-around force has garnered heavy attention. Krzyzewski has said Allen is still hampered by a lingering ankle injury he suffered a few weeks ago, and the junior’s perimeter shooting has suffered recently as a result.
That has opened the door for the 6-foot-8 swingman to play a bigger role in the offense, and Tatum has scored at least 19 points in four of the team’s last five games. After early-season injuries kept him from hitting the ground running, the St. Louis native has started to find his shooting stroke and will be a handful for Hurricane forwards Anthony Lawrence, Jr. and Kamari Murphy.
And if Duke can find the defensive intensity that shut down Miami in Durham and has been inconsistent recently, its star freshman appears poised to take advantage. After struggling with his outside shot early in the season, Tatum has been lethal the past few weeks after working with the Blue Devil coaching staff on drills to speed up his decision-making.
“It really just helped me adjust to the pace of college basketball. It’s so much faster and quicker and that’s something I was struggling with early,” Tatum said. “Coach was always on me about that so he made that drill up for me to do and it’s helped me a lot to think quicker—not just score—but think quicker.”
Mitchell Gladstone and Meredith Cash contributed reporting.
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