Make No Mistake, Miami is The Best Team in the ACCPosted by KCarpenter on January 24th, 2013
It may be tempting to add caveats, but make no mistake: The Miami Hurricanes really are the best team in the ACC. Sure, they haven’t played North Carolina State yet and, yes, Ryan Kelly makes Duke a significantly better team. There is a strong chance that both of these teams could beat the Hurricanes when they face them on their home courts later this season. On the other hand, Miami took the number one team in the country and administered the third biggest thrashing that the highest-ranked team in the country has suffered in the history of college basketball. Kelly and home court are important factors, but does anyone think that those two things are honestly worth 27 points? If so, I’d like to present you with this honorary plaque commemorating your dedication to the Ryan Kelly Fan Club.
The caveats don’t stand up against scrutiny. Miami sits at the top of the standings without a single conference loss because of the Hurricanes’ incredible commitment to defense under Jim Larranaga. Outside of Rasheed Sulaimon, the entire complement of Duke’s normally excellent guard corps combined to shoot 1-of-29 from the field. This wasn’t just luck on Miami’s part (though it helped). Before last night, Miami had the eighth best defensive efficiency mark in the country, achieved by consistently excellent interior defense, limiting three-point attempts, contesting the ones that were put up, and a deliberate and marked effort to avoid putting their opponents at the line. With this team, Larranaga has opted for a cautious and conservative style of play: Miami mostly eschews the offensive glass in order to set its defense and limit transition buckets. They don’t try to force turnovers by risking fouling. The defense gets set, chases shooters off the three-point line, and funnels the offense to shot blockers who force opponents to attempt contested mid-range buckets (the worst shot in basketball). The defensive concept is simple: Make your opponent take difficult shots and then focus (as a team) on securing the defensive rebound. It’s how the San Antonio Spurs won four NBA championships and Larranaga has demonstrated that these concepts work well in college basketball as well. The Miami Hurricanes simply play phenomenal team defense and that goes a long way towards winning games.
While the injury to senior center Reggie Johnson seemed to be a major blow to the Hurricanes’ big hopes, the team has played well in his absence. In fact, despite Johnson’s return to the lineup last night, the team looked better without him. Johnson is a big talent, but his lapses in conditioning continue to be a detriment to the team. In the meantime, Julian Gamble has played well at the center spot, facilitating his role in the system to perfection. Kenny Kadji and Durand Scott have been playing some of the best basketball of their careers in Johnson’s absence. Again, while the injured center at his best is a big time game-changer, he is also something of a ballhog. Before Johnson’s injury, the only ACC player who used a higher percentage of his team’s possessions was Virginia Tech’s Erick Green. Without Johnson on the court, the rest of the squad has had more opportunities with the ball, and so far, the team has thrived. It’s a marked contrast to the reaction of the sputtering Blue Devils once Kelly went down. With or without Johnson at his best, the Hurricanes will be winning games in March.
Can the Blue Devils say the same about Kelly? So far, it doesn’t look like it, though the sample size is very small. Though it looks like Duke won’t have to play without their senior leader for much longer, it would have been an encouraging sign if the team had been able to win one without him (unless you really want to count a home win against Georgia Tech as demonstrative of, well, anything). This game, like the Devils’ recent tilt with NC State, isn’t an ominous portent of a season gone awry. It’s a worrying sign if I am a Duke fan, but at this point it’s still just one game in January. Mike Krzyzewski will have his chance to avenge this loss, but for now, the man of the hour is Jim Larranaga, coach of the best team in the Atlantic Coast Conference.