Miami proves plenty in defeat at Duke

DURHAM, NC — Miami didn’t beat Duke in Saturday’s epic rematch, but the Hurricanes proved they are the best team in the ACC and are a legit threat to win the national championship.

Miami is not better because of the margin differential in the teams’ two games against each other — which is plus-24 for the Hurricanes — or because it has a two-game lead in the ACC standings with a week to go in the regular season.

And the No. 5 Hurricanes (23-5, 14-2 ACC) aren’t better because they have 10 true road wins while Duke has only four.

They are better because of all of those reasons, and their low point since Christmas only flared up once in a 15-point loss at Wake Forest a week ago. Otherwise, Miami has been pretty darn good almost every time it’s stepped onto the court. In addition to the pummeling at Miami, Duke has been down by double digits late in losses at N.C. State and Virginia.

Now, to be fair, third-ranked Duke (25-4, 12-4) didn’t have Ryan Kelly for any of those games, and his return — a 36-point performance Saturday — lends credence to those who believe the Blue Devils are the superior team. They are certainly a healthy notch better with Kelly than without him.

Perhaps the narrative here will change in the next week or two, but what won’t is that along with Duke, Miami is a legitimate threat to win the national championship.

So many national pundits dismissed the Hurricanes’ chances coming into Cameron Indoor Stadium. Some called for a Duke rout right out of the gate. Others said the Canes didn’t belong, were overrated flukes whose bubble burst last week in Winston-Salem, and slapping the floor in Coral Gables in the first meeting meant their certain demise on this night. You just don’t diss Duke like that without repercussion.

Duke slapped the floor in return Saturday, but that was when it went up by 10 points with 1:55 remaining in the contest. But instead of wilting as so many of Duke’s victims have over the years in that sweltering old building, the Hurricanes struck back with an 11-4 spurt to close to within the final margin. But missed 3-pointers by Shane Larkin and Rion Brown fell off the rim, the final one as the clock reached zero.

“I thought our guys did a good job,” Miami coach Jim Larranaga said. “We played well. We had a two-point lead at the half . . . One more shot could have made that last possession.”

Miami was that close to beating Duke in its frenzied and historic home, and on a night when one of the Blue Devils’ key players returned after missing 13 games by scoring 36 points — an ACC high for this season — only further illustrates the level to which the ‘Canes performed.

“They’re such a good basketball team,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Larkin is a great player, the best guard by far in the league. He’s magical out there. He has such poise, and (Kenny) Kadji . . . these guys are just so talented. You can see why they’re leading our conference and having the spectacular year they are having.”

Never mind some of the stats that don’t look so pretty. Seven assists on 28 field goals generally isn’t acceptable, but Duke’s overplaying forces teams to use the dribble, and Miami continued taking the ball to the rim, especially in the first half. Assists rarely accompany runners, floaters, pull-up jumpers and drives to the basket.

But do regard that Miami outrebounded Duke 40-27 and had just 10 turnovers against the Devils’ dog-in-heat defense.

Miami has proven it can handle any situation. The Hurricanes can win up-tempo games, slow grinders, by dominating inside, by using their perimeter to close out teams. They have blown out quality foes (they also beat North Carolina by 26) and win on the road in nail biters.

Its coach, Jim Larranaga, is the only ACC head man not named Krzyzewski or Roy Williams to guide a team to the Final Four — he led George Mason there in 2006 — and he is likely headed to a National Coach of the Year honor this season.

Miami has it all, and even in defeat Saturday, the Hurricanes proved it once again.