The college football season came to a screeching halt Monday night, when Alabama rolled over Notre Dame and was crowned undisputed king at Sun Life Stadium. Now, its time to shift attention to basketball, which for the past few months was relegated to the back seat outside the hoop-crazed states of North Carolina, Indiana and Kentucky.
Conference play is heating up, and here are some ACC storylines you may have missed: Duke is 15-0 and ranked No. 1 following wins over Kentucky, Louisville, Minnesota and Ohio State. North Carolina fans are deeply worried after the Tar Heels (10-4) dropped from No. 11 to unranked following blowout losses to Indiana and Texas, and a loss at Virginia in their ACC opener.
The University of Miami, meanwhile, has quietly racked up a 10-3 record and a top-10 RPI thanks to a top-five strength of schedule. The Canes are in Chapel Hill to play North Carolina on Thursday night at the Smith Center. The 7 p.m. game is on ESPN, giving the Hurricanes a chance to impress recruits and pollsters.
UM has the fifth-best record in the ACC, behind top-ranked Duke, Maryland (13-1), North Carolina State (12-2) and Virginia (11-3). They have beaten Michigan State, UMass, Central Florida, Hawaii, Detroit, LaSalle and Georgia Tech. Now comes the real test.
Conference play is so different from nonconference, said UM coach Jim Larranaga, whose team won its conference opener on the road against Georgia Tech. The teams are much more familiar with each other. Youre playing teams, for the most part, home and away. The crowds are much more enthusiastic for conference play. And, a lot of them are on national television, as well. So, thats added incentive for both teams.
The Hurricanes are particularly motivated to beat the Tar Heels because a year ago this week, they lost 73-56 to then-No. 3 North Carolina in front of a crowd of 20,096. The Heels went on a 17-0 run during that game, and UM never got close. That North Carolina team included four NBA draft picks Kendall Marshall, Tyler Zeller, John Henson and Harrison Barnes.
Last year, we got embarrassed up there, said UM senior forward/center Kenny Kadji, who takes on an extra load in the absence of the injured Reggie Johnson. They had three lottery picks, outrebounded us and were just better than us. This year, we are a year older and more experienced. I think it will be a different game this time.
UM senior guard Durand Scott said that although the crowd will be rooting against them, they relish the charged atmosphere.
You grow up dreaming of playing Duke, North Carolina, those types of teams, so once you get that chance, its really motivating, Scott said. I know quite a few guys on that team from AAU and playing them the past few years, so I want to win real bad. Theyve had ups and downs this year, but hopefully they wont bounce back against us.
The Canes will be without Johnson, who is expected to miss five to six weeks with a fractured left thumb. Larranaga challenged Johnson to use the time off to get in the best shape of his life. Word is, he is taking that challenge seriously.
Reggie has been working out like crazy during our practices, Scott said. One day, we were all watching him across the gym, and we got in trouble because we were more focused on watching what he was doing than our practice. We just have to keep winning until he comes back, and then, it will be the most important part of the season.
Sophomore point guard Shane Larkin, Scott, Kadji and Trey McKinney Jones have been consistent starters, and all are playing well. Johnson was averaging 12 points and 10 rebounds per game, so other players will have to step up to make up for the big mans numbers.
Browns big game
One who could make a difference is sophomore guard Rion Brown. He is coming off a career-best 22 points on 9-of-11 shooting against Georgia Tech. Brown was especially pumped for that game because his father, Tico, was an All-American at Georgia Tech and had his number retired there. He had more than 40 family members and friends in the stands. The day before the game, Brown took photos of his fathers All-American plaque and jersey, which were on display in the arena hallway.
Larranaga said he joked with UM CFO Joe Natoli that maybe hed put a wallet-sized photo of Browns father in his locker before every upcoming game.
We told Rion, That better not be a one-time thing just because his parents were there, Kadji said, smiling. Hopefully, that game gave him the confidence to keep shooting and making those big shots. Were going to need all the points we can get against North Carolina.