With two games remaining on the regular-season schedule, the Miami Hurricanes have likely achieved all they need to achieve in order to earn an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Miami (20-8) has had as good of a week as just about anyone in the sport, getting a road win against 18th-ranked Virginia on Monday, then pulling off a 55-50 win at home over No. 10 Duke (22-7) on Saturday.
The Hurricanes, who are getting better and better on defense, held Duke to a season-low 50 points. Jim Larranaga is going to get to the Big Dance for the third time as coach at the U. It’s a cool story, and just tuck this away for Selection Sunday: The Hurricanes are on the short list of best, true sleeper Sweet 16 teams. Their size, age and skill makes them a real threat to break through the first weekend. Keep it in mind. Bruce Brown scored 25 points; he’s the best freshmen you haven’t been watching this season.
Also cool. Check out Miami’s football coach hanging back at his seat while the fans flooded the floor.
Now, we get to Duke. Because the Blue Devils’ loss Saturday, though reasonable, is the bigger story. Yes, it’s hard to win on the road. I do not and will never downplay that reality. But for a — the favorite! In all of college basketball?! — to win the national title earlier this week, only putting up 50 is a problem.
If you’re UNC or Kentucky or Arizona, or UCLA, Gonzaga, Oregon, Villanovaor Kansas, you pop in the tape of this game and think you’ve got a lot of opportunities to beat Duke. Call it an off night if you’d like, but Miami forced its will on the Blue Devils. The Canes were more responsible for the outcome than Duke.
But it’s not just the basic 50-point finish. Duke was anemic on a per-possession basis. Check this, via ESPN’s John Gasaway.
It had been more than four years since Duke was that inefficient against an ACC team. The guys in blue shot 32 percent, had 13 turnovers, got beat in transition some and were overwhelmed by Miami’s physicality.
There is a reason for this. Not having Grayson Allen ( ) was absolutely a factor. Duke was randomly hot (mostly Frank Jackson and Luke Kennard, each of whom had 16 points) but couldn’t run consistent offense. Duke’s lack of a true point guard has been the most disconcerting flaw with this team all season. It’s the one thing that made people stop and think about not picking Duke to get to the Final Four in the preseason, when the Blue Devils were the consensus No. 1 team.
Allen, though not a point guard, has been the one most responsible for running the offense. Jackson is capable as well, but he’s really a shooting guard. Without Allen available at Miami, Duke looked rudimentary.
So now the Blue Devils have dropped two straight — both on the road — and next up? Home to very good Florida State, then the roadie at UNC to close up the regular season. Duke beat the Tar Heels a couple weeks back at Cameron, but UNC is on pace for a 1 seed and could be the best team not named Gonzaga as we turn to March.
With March less than a week away, we’ve officially hit the “is what it is” phase with Duke. This group is really talented, capable of beating really anyone in college hoops on a neutral court. But this team is not consistent enough, purely in terms of style and execution, to make you believe that uniformity in execution will suddenly appear in the tournament.
Not having a point guard will do that to you.
Could it happen? Mike Krzyzewski’s on the sideline. Of course it could. But it’s just a crapshoot, it seems. If Allen plays on Saturday, I do think Duke wins, though, even if it would’ve been in an ugly style. Even if that was the case, even if Duke beat Miami 61-57 with Allen on the floor, I’d still have this broad view of the Blue Devils.
You’d be silly to think Duke’s a ripe victim for a first round upset, but you’d always be foolish to think Duke is deserving of even top-five status of teams most likely to win the national title. The Blue Devils have their fits and starts, their sparks and defects, and now we’re just waiting for the next game to see which Duke team opts to show up. To a national audience, Duke’s unpredictability has become its most identifiable quality.