They say there’s calm in the eye of a hurricane.
While perhaps scientifically true, there’s sure to be no quiet in this marauding Hurricane team, who travel from Coral Gables, Fla., for a daunting date with head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke squad Saturday at 8 p.m. at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The No. 2 Blue Devils are coming off a hard-fought 69-57 win against Georgia Tech, while Miami hopes to build on four consecutive conference wins and hold their place atop the ACC.
2021-22 has seen a sort of regression-toward-the-mean for Duke (12-1, 2-0 in the ACC), having re-established itself among college basketball’s elite following a disappointing, albeit COVID-affected, season in 2020-21. Miami (12-3, 4-0), on the other hand, has been a surprise standout this year, jumping to an early conference lead amid underperformance by traditional heavyweights. Here are five things to look out for in the ACC’s (surprisingly) most marquee matchup this season thus far.
Amid a season that’s seen traditional conference powerhouses like Virginia, North Carolina and Florida State grapple with transition and roster turnover, the door has been flung wide open for a new challenger to rise and resist the heavily-favored Blue Devils. Enter Miami.
Head coach Jim Larrañaga’s players have been nothing short of remarkable this season, stringing together an improbable and unexpected undefeated streak in the ACC to rise to the top of the conference table. The Hurricanes have stamped wins against high-flying Wake Forest, N.C. State, Clemson and, most recently beat Syracuse in an 88-87 nailbiter. Miami has averaged 77.1 points-per-game this season and has notched 330 points from beyond the arc.
“It's definitely a big matchup for us,” said Duke junior guard Wendell Moore Jr. “I mean, a huge match for the team. So we just got to come in locked in.”
Coming into this season, the talk was about Duke’s next great NBA-ready freshman trio: Paolo Banchero, Trevor Keels and AJ Griffin. In the first few games, however, it was Banchero and Keels that stole the spotlight, leading the Blue Devils to wins against then-No. 10 Kentucky and then-No. 1 Gonzaga while Griffin was sidelined with an ACL injury.
In recent weeks, it’s been his turn to prove his mettle, throwing down commanding performances against Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, and a season-high 19-point showing against South Carolina State. The 6-foot-6 forward from White Plains, N.Y., has been explosive, athletic and productive when he’s hit the hardwood, shooting 55% from the field and 45% from beyond the arc, all while driving to the rim and sending the Cameron Crazies of Section 17 into rapture with ferocious one-hand slams.
“He's coming to himself,” said Moore. “He has a lot of confidence in himself and we have all the confidence in him as well. So he's coming in, playing great [and] every time he steps on the floor, I mean, it seems like it's a positive for us. He's only gonna keep getting better.”
If Griffin keeps up the momentum and progress he’s been cultivating in the past few games, he’ll be an undroppable asset not just against Miami on Saturday but for the rest of this season and Duke’s lofty, title-winning ambitions.
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Superstars of South Florida
Sixth-year senior Kameron McGusty and third-year sophomore Isaiah Wong have accounted for 520 of Miami’s 1,157 points this season. Let that sink in for a second; two players have been responsible for just shy of half of their team’s points. Though the dominance of outstanding players is somewhat exaggerated in teams with more limited roster depth (think Ja Morant with Murray State), it’s nonetheless important to recognize just how vital McGusty and Wong have been to the Hurricanes’ remarkable season and how crucial they will be if Miami hopes to leave Durham with their unbeaten conference record intact.
“I played against Isaiah Wong ever since high school and he's been that good ever since,” said Moore. “And then Kameron McGusty, he's obviously really good as well. So I'm not surprised what [Miami is] doing. They're a really good team in our conference.”
Both players have been especially dominant from the field, as shown by McGusty and Wong having respective field goal percentages of 51% and 50%, and will hope to control the paint throughout the evening. If the Blue Devils can use the size of Banchero and Mark Williams to hoard the defensive glass and limit Wong’s and McGusty’s influence near the rim, their chances of winning increase exponentially. Equally, however, the opposite is true, and Miami will be banking on that.
Moore’s remarkable renaissance
Even if headlines are, justifiably, focused on the dominance of projected lottery pick Paolo Banchero, one could easily argue that the Blue Devils’ player of the season so far has been junior forward Wendell Moore Jr.
Though he had somewhat of an off-game against Georgia Tech Tuesday evening with eight points, his third season in a Duke jersey has been nothing short of spectacular. The Charlotte native recorded Duke’s sixth-ever triple-double against Army and has averaged 16.3 points and 32 minutes per game, with visible improvements in his physicality, playmaking and shooting.
Moore has been a key cog in Krzyzewski’s machine this season and his leadership, reliability and increased output are instrumental in making this Blue Devil team tick. When Moore has a good game, Duke has a good game, and if he plays on Saturday like he’s played all season, he’ll further justify his recent inclusion on the Wooden Award list and further cement his team as kings of the conference.
Best of the rest
As mentioned above, it’s been a weird year for the ACC. Traditionally the NCAA’s strongest basketball conference and a perennial possessor of at least one No. 1 seeding in March, the conference table this season is littered with relatively unremarkable records, save Miami and Duke.
Headlined by projected lottery picks and college basketball’s winningest-ever coach in Krzyzewski, it’s unsurprising to see the Blue Devils near the top of not just the ACC but the NCAA pyramid. Miami, a successful yet not as historically dominant program as Duke, has stepped out of the shadows and into the limelight as an unlikely but welcome challenger.
“[Miami has] had a good core group over the past few years,” said Duke senior Joey Baker. “And they really put it together this year.... They have a lot of good players and they've been playing great basketball all season.”
In a weird year amidst a sea of weird years, is 2022 Miami’s chance to usurp the throne and halt a presumably unstoppable Duke team? Only time, and Saturday’s game, will tell.