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Canes Hoops: Miami Prepares for Blue Devils Saturday in Hopes of Turning Series Around

The Hurricanes enter winners of five straight, but will be sternly tested by Duke in Coral Gables. Miami, losers of two straight against the Blue Devils, can turn their fortunes around in the series.

NCAA Basketball: Miami-Florida at Duke Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Hurricanes enter Saturday as winners of five straight, but will be sternly tested by the Duke Blue Devils in Coral Gables. As recently as two years ago to date, UM had been winners of three of the most recent four meetings between the Tobacco Road blue blood and the tropical hoops upstart, with Jim Larrañaga punching well above his weight against Mike Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils.

Far removed from the 27-point drubbing Shane Larkin and the Canes put on then-No. 1 Duke at the Watsco Center in 2013, Miami needs to turn some momentum around in this once very competitive rivalry. On Jan. 15, 2018, the No. 25 Canes in front of a sold out Coral Gables crowd led by as much as 13 in the second half but couldn't hold off No. 5 Duke in the waining minutes, falling 83-75. UM was soundly defeated in their next and most recent outing against the Durham team, 87-57 at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Mar. 2, 2019.

Saturday, the Hurricanes (9-3, 1-1 ACC) enter the matchup with the No. 2 Blue Devils on a five-game winning streak, without a loss since the month of November (albeit with two long layoffs between games due to final exams and Christmas). Miami hasn't won five games in succession since the start of the 2018-19 season. The Hurricanes are also averaging 82.2 points per game over the five game streak.

“It’s not exactly like we’re crushing anybody, but it’s great to win close games,” said Larrañaga on his team’s December performance.

“I do think that gives you confidence. Now the question is how well can we play against some of the best teams in the country...I think Duke right now is is probably the best team that I’ve seen. And they’re the best in so many different categories...they’re a tremendous transition team. I think this is one of Coach K’s great teams, but this is definitely one of his best defensive teams since I’ve been in the league. They put so much pressure on you, they’re at their best when they steal the ball and score before you get defense can get set, [and] if they shoot the ball and miss, they’re a tremendous offensive rebounding team, and they’re fast and deep—they play ten guys every game. So it’s it’s going to be a real challenge for us,” Larrañaga said.

But they will face arguably their biggest test of the season when Duke (12-1, 2-0 ACC) comes to South Florida. Krzyzewski’s team has won six straight since their 85-83 upset OT loss to Stephen F. Austin on November 26, highlighted by a 88-49 domination of Boston College on New Year’s Eve. The Blue Devils enter the contest ranked first in the Atlantic Coast Conference and seventh in the nation at 83.3 points per game. And at just under 42 rebounds per game, they rank second in the conference in that department. Most dangerously however, is Duke’s +20.8 per game point differential, which is first in the ACC and the nation.

Individually, no team had it more difficult than the Blue Devils this past offseason, having to replace three huge contributors from a season ago including Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish. But a laundry list of new faces has made it as seamless of a transition as possible for Duke this season. Freshman Vernon Carey Jr. leads the team with 17.9 points per game, tied for third in the ACC. The son of the former Canes football offensive lineman also leads the league in field goal percentage (61.3%) and is third in rebounds (nine per game), a team-high. He has eight double-doubles in 2019-20 and has shot a team-high 57% from three-point range.

Sophomore Tre Jones meanwhile has logged 14.6 points per game, while his 7.4 assists per game is a team and ACC-best. Duke’s depth beyond Carey and Jones will also be a factor, with three players outside of their top two overall scorers having lead the team in points in at least one game this year. Those players include Freshman Matthew Hurt, who has 11.5 points per game, first-year guard Cassius Stanley with 10.3 points per game, as well as Sophomore forward Joey Baker off the bench, part of a reserve core that is averaging 25.8 points per game and over 33 points during each of the last six games.

Yet for the Hurricanes, no task should be impossible. They overcame a ten-point, second half deficit at Clemson Tuesday on their way to a 73-68 OT victory, their most recent of five wins in succession. Chris Lykes added 27 points while DJ Vasiljevic dropped 15, even after being held quiet for swaths of the afternoon.

To have any chance at upsetting Duke, UM must exert their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. The veteran trio of Lykes, Kameron McGusty and Vasiljevic must all contribute. Currently they occupy the top three spots in the Hurricane statsheet, with 15.9, 15.2 and 15.1 points per game respectively. Lykes, with a team-high 31 personal fouls, must stay out of foul trouble. Vasiljevic cannot wait to get hot like he did Tuesday and expect his team to win at the end, but be the wing player who makes over 46% of his shots from beyond the arc.

Keith Stone and Rodney Miller must also continue to show their upward progression in the low post Saturday, with the duo combining to score just under 11 and a half points per game, along with their nine per contest combined rebounds.

Fans can see the the Hurricanes in action in what will be UM’s most important game of the year to date, with tipoff at the Watsco Center set for 8 p.m. The game can also be seen on ESPN and 560 WQAM-AM.

Miami will next travel to Louisville on Tuesday for a rematch of the season opener, and will be back at the Watsco Center Jan. 12 to face Pittsburgh.