Duke game? What Duke game?
The fifth-ranked University of Miami men’s basketball team heads to Durham, N.C., on Saturday for a nationally televised rematch with No. 3 Duke, whom the Hurricanes trounced by 27 points back when the Blue Devils were No. 1.
But UM coach Jim Larranaga and his players insist they haven’t given that game much thought because they must first clear a dangerous hurdle at home Wednesday night — Virginia Tech. Yes, the Hokies are in last place in the Atlantic Coast Conference with a 3-11 league record and 12-15 record overall. Yes, Virginia Tech lost nine games in a row and 12 of 14 before beating Florida State by 10 on Sunday.
But Erick Green, the nation’s leading scorer, plays for the Hokies, and that alone is reason to capture the Hurricanes’ attention. Green averages 25.2 points per game and is on pace to become the first ACC player to lead the NCAA in scoring since 1957. He has scored 20-plus points in 25 of 27 games this season, including a 30-point night against UM Jan. 30 in Blacksburg, a game the Canes won 73-64.
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“Everybody in the media and on campus is looking forward to that Duke game, but we can’t overlook Virginia Tech, especially with a guy like Erick Green on the team,” said UM center Julian Gamble, spoken like the veteran sixth-year senior he is.
“They can come in and beat you. They’re not going to lay down for us. Even though we’re playing at home, expecting a good crowd and a lot of energy, that’s not going to deter them. They have a lot of veteran guys, and their staff is very familiar with ours.’’
The Hurricanes (22-4) lead the ACC with a 13-1 record, their lone loss last Saturday at Wake Forest. That loss, by 15 points, was their first since Christmas Day. The Demon Deacons had a full week to prepare for the Canes, who played three road games in 10 days, and they looked ready from the opening tip. They shot 54.2 percent on the night, only the second team all season to shoot better than 50 percent against Miami.
The Canes came out a bit flat and paid the price.
Larranaga is determined not to let that happen again. Although he is thrilled the team has become a national feel-good story, he canceled most player interviews this week to give the Hurricanes time to attend one-on-one film sessions with his coaching staff. Most weeks, the entire team is available for interviews. On Tuesday, only Gamble was brought to the news conference.
The coaches want sophomore guard Shane Larkin to watch and study how teams are treating him differently now than they were earlier in the season, back when opponents focused all their attention on seniors Reggie Johnson, Durand Scott and Kenny Kadji. Larkin is a secret no more. The dynamic guard with the lightning-quick feet and uncanny court vision is now a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award and on Tuesday was named one of the 30 candidates for the Naismith Award for the best player in college basketball.
Opponents are double-teaming Larkin now, trying to frustrate him off ball screens, and his challenge is to adjust and find new ways to produce points and distribute the ball.
“They’re doubling Shane off the ball screens, and that opens up different opportunities, and we have to be able to take advantage of that,” Larranaga said. “We have to educate Shane on what his options now become.”
He will have his hands full Wednesday night, when he and Scott will be primarily responsible for defending Green.
“He can score so many different ways,” Gamble said of Green. “If he’s on the floor and he has the ball, he’s a threat to score from 25 feet in. He’s gonna shoot a lot of shots. He has the ultimate green light, a lot of confidence from his coaching staff and teammates. A guy like that is tough to guard. You can’t really rest. At any time he can go off. You try to keep him moving, fatigue him.”
Gamble said the loss at Wake Forest was a wake-up call, a reminder that the details of preparation cannot be ignored.
“If we had to lose, I’d rather lose now than in March because we can learn from it as we go forward,” he said. “If you lose in March, it’s over.”