For years, Miami’s basketball program was often thrilled to draw more than a handful of fans to watch some of the Hurricanes’ biggest ACC games. When the team returned to the BankUnited Center from Saturday’s last-second win over N.C. State, late into the evening, there were fans at the arena to celebrate a game played somewhere else.
“As the bus pulled in, there was a group of students there to greet us,” Miami coach Jim Larranaga said Monday. “There are a lot of people pulling for our team, a lot of enthusiasm on campus and in the community.”
The Hurricanes have sold out their past two home games, against Duke and Florida State, and have already sold out Saturday’s game against North Carolina (they play Boston College on Tuesday first). That’s what happens when a team picked to finish fifth in the ACC by the media and fourth by the coaches is leading the league in February, although even in that preseason voting, there was a general acknowledgement that the ceiling for the Hurricanes – with five returning starters, four of them seniors – was higher.
At 8-0 in the ACC, 17-3 overall, Miami has a two-game lead on Duke atop the ACC standings. The Hurricanes have one glaring loss – at Florida Gulf Coast without Durand Scott, who was suspended – and two others, to Arizona and Indiana State, the latter in overtime, at a tournament in Hawaii. They’ve been perfect in ACC play, including a blowout home win over Duke as well as wins at North Carolina and N.C. State.
That’s no small consideration. In a year when wins on the road in ACC play have proven historically hard to come by, the Hurricanes account for a full third of the ACC’s 15 road wins. No one else has more than two.
“We have an older group,” Larranaga said. “We do have four seniors in our starting lineup. They’ve been through the ACC battles for the last several years. They know how challenging it is. They’ve done a very good job of preparing themselves to play well.”
Miami has also benefited from playing to its strengths, while the flaws of the other would-be contenders have been all too apparent.
N.C. State has been as erratic and inconsistent as feared, losing four very winnable games to make it all but impossible for the Wolfpack to win the title they were picked to win in the preseason. North Carolina’s inexperience has been telling, whether it’s Marcus Paige at point guard or the lack of a proven go-to player on offense. Florida State has been perhaps the ACC’s most disappointing team, and is two Michael Snaer buzzer-beaters away from being 2-6 instead of 4-4.
And Duke, which is still probably the most talented team in the ACC and maintains at least a good chance to unseat Miami, saw its one real weakness – a lack of depth – exposed when Ryan Kelly went down indefinitely. The Blue Devils, undefeated on the day Kelly was injured, are 4-2 since then, including that shocking 27-point loss at Miami.
While those teams have fallen apart, relatively speaking, the Hurricanes have picked up the pieces. Even when the Hurricanes lost center Reggie Johnson for a month with a broken thumb, they stayed on task – and Johnson returned just in time to tip in the winning basket against N.C. State.
It’s only February, but the Hurricanes have taken care of business. Miami’s basketball team is doing what the football team was expected to do when the school joined the ACC (and still hasn’t done): filling seats and leading the league.