College Basketball Nation: Kenny Kadji

WASHINGTON -- Reggie Johnson is replaceable.

But his gregarious personality may be hard to duplicate.

Johnson suffered through the losing seasons at Miami, and has been there during this season's sudden surge. And then, after Sunday's victory over Illinois -- a game that had propelled the second-seeded Hurricanes (29-6) to the Sweet 16 and on the path toward a potential first Final Four -- the school announced that Johnson was out again due to a knee injury.

Johnson’s role had been diminished a bit of late; he was held scoreless with five boards in 18 minutes against the Illini.

Still, his absence is significant.

His knee injury is severe enough that Johnson was told he couldn’t play this week, so the decision was made for him to undergo surgery, with the chance that he could return, maybe, for the Final Four.

[+] EnlargeReggie Johnson
Ray Carlin/Icon SMIReggie Johnson -- at 6-foot-10, 292 pounds a massive force inside -- couldn't even travel with Miami to the Sweet 16.
But Johnson couldn’t travel -- and his absence was felt in the Hurricanes’ locker room Wednesday at the Verizon Center.

"It affects us on and off the court," said Miami point guard Shane Larkin. "He is a huge part of our team. He’s been supporting us. He talks to us and tells us to stay calm. He’s that type of player that would do anything for the team. Even though he’s not here, he can help us fight through adversity. He’s had the experience."

Johnson missed December's Diamond Head Classic with a thumb injury. So the Canes have experience playing without him, and while they lost to Indiana State and Arizona in Hawaii without their big man, they might be able to move a bit better offensively.

Still, against a physical team like No. 3 seed Marquette (25-8), the Canes could use an immovable force inside such as Johnson, especially if the game gets into the half court.

"We know this is going to be physical and Coach told us to prepare for a street fight," Miami senior Kenny Kadji said. "There are no rules for a street fight. We can be a physical team. Me and Julian [Gamble] and Tonye [Jekiri] are pretty big. We’ve seen a game like this before against Michigan State and did a great job of controlling the paint."

Still, Kadji concedes Johnson will be missed.

"People think twice before coming in the paint [with Johnson]," he said. "It will be different. Our guards will have to rebound. You can’t replace a guy like Reggie."

Kadji said Johnson was there to do the little things, and to push people out of the way and not allow drives to the basket.

"He could take charges and do all the little things," Kadji said. "It’s very sad, very sad for him. He’s been here five years and seen the highs and lows at Miami. It’s unbelievable that he can’t even travel. It’s hard. It’s motivation for us to get two wins to get to the Final Four."

Marquette’s Davante Gardner, who will now need to chase Kadji more on the perimeter than hunker down in the post, said he was unaware that Johnson would be out, but it still wasn't his main focus.

The Golden Eagles simply need to concentrate on getting over the Sweet 16 hump, something they haven’t been able to do the past two seasons.

That’s Marquette’s quest. Miami is on a path of its own, to continue a magical season the Canes are hoping won’t end because Johnson isn’t available.

"It’s definitely tough not having him here," Miami senior Durand Scott said. "Him not being here will motivate us. It’s hard not to see him out on the court. He’s a leader for us. But we’ll go out there and play as hard as we can to win."

Video: Miami 62, Clemson 49

March, 9, 2013
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Kenny Kadji scored a season-high 23 points to help No. 6 Miami beat Clemson 62-49 and win the ACC regular-season title outright.

 
DURHAM, N.C. -- Quick thoughts on No. 3 Duke’s 79-76 victory over No. 5 Miami at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday night.

Overview: Ryan Kelly, in his first action in more than a month, exploded in the first half. The senior, whose status was “questionable” prior to tipoff, scored 20 points before intermission. He didn’t play like a guy coming off a foot injury.

Duke’s defense wasn’t exactly impenetrable. The Hurricanes shot 47 percent from the field before the break. Durand Scott easily penetrated and Kenny Kadji hit big shots, too. The duo combined to score 18 points in the first half.

But Kelly was the difference-maker. His performance and appearance enhanced the Cameron atmosphere. Kelly was 7-for-10 (5-for-7 from the 3-point line) while the rest of the team’s starters went 4-for-15 in the first half. Miami took a 36-34 lead into the second half, which was filled with back-and-forth action, brief lead changes, ties, 3-pointers, floaters and an eardrum-bursting vibe.

Turning point: Really, the moment Kelly returned. More specifically … the matchup turned toward the end of the second half. The Blue Devils were down 56-55 when Kelly connected on a 3-pointer off Quinn Cook's assist. That play kicked off a 10-5 run that saw the Blue Devils take a four-point lead (65-61) with 5 minutes, 50 seconds to play. This was a very tight game. That brief separation was enough to help Duke (25-4, 12-4 ACC) finish strong and secure the victory. But it wasn’t that easy. Trey McKinney Jones hit a 3-pointer with 57.2 seconds to go.

Cook then stepped out of bounds on the inbounds -- and followed that up by committing the foul on Shane Larkin's turnaround layup attempt. Larkin missed the first free throw but made the second with 53.6 seconds to go. Duke had the ball and a 78-76 lead when Mason Plumlee tossed a full-court pass to Seth Curry that ultimately sailed out of bounds. But Miami (23-5, 14-2) responded with a turnover on a potential go-ahead possession. With the Blue Devils still up two with 31.1 seconds to play, Curry missed the second of two free-throw attempts, giving Miami a chance to tie. Larkin missed one 3-point try and Rion Brown missed another as the Blue Devils secured the 79-76 victory.

But the true turning pointing was the second that Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski decided to play Kelly.

Key stat: Kelly missed 13 games. And in his first game back, he finished with a career-high 36 points.

Key player: Kelly. That’s all. The senior came up huge as the Blue Devils avenged their 27-point loss to the Hurricanes on Jan. 23.

Next game: Duke will host Virginia Tech on Tuesday. Miami will host Georgia Tech on Wednesday.

Video: Miami 76, Virginia Tech 58

February, 27, 2013
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Shane Larkin scored 22 points and Kenny Kadji added 20 as fifth-ranked Miami responded to its first ACC loss by rolling past Virginia Tech 76-58.

Conference Power Rankings: ACC

February, 22, 2013
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With roughly two weeks left in the regular season, the race is on for a top-four seed (and first-day bye) in the ACC tournament. In the meantime, here are this week's rankings based on myriad factors, including how teams have performed lately and the foes they've faced:

1. Miami. Clemson and Virginia both tested the Canes, but a late 3-pointer from Kenny Kadji at the Tigers and Reggie Johnson's tiebreaking layup versus the Cavs kept Miami undefeated in league play. The 13-0 record marks the hottest league start since Duke went 16-0 en route to the conference title in 1998-99.

2. Duke. The Devils bounced back from a close loss at Maryland with a blowout win at Virginia Tech as Mason Plumlee followed a four-point, three-rebound performance with a double-double Thursday night. Coach Mike Krzyzewski is now third on the career list for victories at one school (877), behind Dean Smith and Jim Boeheim.

3. NC State. The Wolfpack got a big boost by inserting 6-foot-8 T.J. Warren into the starting lineup this week. Not only did he turn in a 31-point, 13-rebound performance against FSU, but the team grabbed a season-best 45 boards. The Pack have won three straight, and it will be interesting to see whether they stay big against the Tar Heels this weekend.

4. North Carolina. Coach Roy Williams continues to start a smaller lineup with sophomore P.J. Hairston at the 4, and the Tar Heels continue to look faster and more aggressive with another scorer on the floor. Forward James Michael McAdoo's double-double at Georgia Tech, after he scored in single digits for three straight games, is a good sign, too.

5. Virginia. The Cavs are in the midst of a tough stretch. They lost at both UNC and No. 2 Miami in the past week, play a Georgia Tech team this weekend that beat them earlier this month, and then face another test in No. 6 Duke coming up next week. Junior Joe Harris, though, continues to be on a tear, averaging 22.4 points over his past five games.

6. Maryland. Another (way) up and (way) down week for the Terps, who upset the then-second-ranked Blue Devils at home, only to lose on the road to a focused Boston College team that had won just three previous ACC games. After posting an impressive 19-point, nine-rebound game against Mason Plumlee, Maryland big man Alex Len managed only four points against the Eagles.

7. Florida State. For all his last-second shots this season, Seminoles point guard Michael Snaer hadn’t managed 20 points against an ACC foe this year, until this week. He followed a 21-point game in a win against Boston College with 20 during a loss at NC State. Next up: a trip to Virginia Tech.

8. Clemson. Another week, another home heartbreaker for the Tigers, who lost to Miami on Kadji’s 3 after losing to NC State on a Scott Wood 3 on Feb. 10. At least they won a close one in the middle at Georgia Tech. Devin Booker posted his fifth double-double of the season in Clemson’s latest loss.

9. Georgia Tech. Freshman Robert Carter Jr. hit two free throws in the final 10 seconds to beat Wake Forest before Georgia Tech lost by double figures to the Tar Heels. The Yellow Jackets were an ouch-worthy 4-for-11 from the free throw line in their latest game and remain the worst foul-shooting team in the league (63.2 percent).

10. Boston College. And to build on the above note about the importance of free throws: The Eagles hit 16 straight down the stretch to protect the lead in their win over Maryland. Freshman Olivier Hanlan scored a career-high 26 points in that game, and BC has won two of its past three.

11. Wake Forest. A three-point loss at Boston College followed by a one-point loss to Georgia Tech? The bottom tier of the ACC likes to make things interesting, at least. The Deacs are second in the league in steals, sandwiched between UNC and Duke, and C.J. Harris continues to lead the team with 14.8 points per game.

12. Virginia Tech. Erick Green is still really good, adding a 22-point game against Duke to his nation-leading scoring average. His team still is struggling, though, losing nine in a row -- including two in overtime and Thursday's loss to the Blue Devils.

Why Miami should be No. 1

February, 11, 2013
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The No. 1 ranked team in the AP Poll has lost five weeks in a row. The top three teams all lost in the last week.

With so much parity, who really is the No. 1 team in college basketball?

How about the team that has the longest active win streak among Power 6 teams, the only Power 6 team undefeated in conference play, the team that is a perfect 11-0 with all of its top players?

The Miami (FL) Hurricanes haven’t lost a game since Christmas. They’re off to a 10-0 start in the ACC, the first team other than Duke or North Carolina to do so since the 1980-81 Virginia Cavaliers. They’re the first team since ACC play began in 1953 to defeat both Duke and North Carolina by at least 25 points in the same season (according to the Elias Sports Bureau).

Miami has won 11 straight games –- no other Power 6 team has an active win streak of more than five games.

The Hurricanes’ only three losses came without one of their key players –- they lost to Florida Gulf Coast without Durand Scott, and to Arizona and Indiana State (in overtime) without Reggie Johnson.

Miami has the highest BPI in college basketball with all of its top players (Shane Larkin, Trey McKinney Jones, Kenny Kadji, Scott and Johnson). BPI defines “top players” as players who are top five on the team in minutes per game and have played at least half of the team’s games.

When debating who the No. 1 team is in college basketball and who deserves the top ranking in the polls, it usually alludes to which team is currently the best team at the moment.

When looking at the likely top candidates for No. 1 –- Miami, Florida, Indiana, Michigan, Syracuse, Gonzaga and Duke -– Miami has the highest BPI with each team’s roster as is at the current moment. As it stands, each of those teams has all of its top players except for Michigan, which is missing Jordan Morgan (ankle injury), and Duke, which is missing Ryan Kelly (foot injury). Of those seven teams, Duke has the lowest BPI with its current roster.

The college basketball season gets cranked up after the New Year, when conference play gets underway. Since Jan. 1, Miami has the highest BPI in the country.

Which team plays the best against the best teams?

Miami has won six of its seven games against teams ranked in the BPI top 50, the best such win percentage (85.7) among teams to play at least five such games.

Miami has the best BPI against top-50 teams since Jan. 1 among teams to play at least five such games, and it’s not even that close. The Hurricanes, who are 5-0 in those games, are the only team to play at least five games against BPI top-50 teams since January 1 and not lose a game.

Miami certainly had a few lackluster performances before the New Year when it wasn’t at full strength –- the loss to Florida Gulf Coast, the 19-point loss to Arizona, and a narrow eight-point win over Stetson -- but the Hurricanes have brought their ‘A’ game as much as any team.

No team has more “Game BPI” scores of 95 or better than Miami (12). BPI takes into account margin, pace, location, opponent and key players missing for each “Game BPI” and then averages those scores to calculate a team’s BPI for the season. Miami’s 99.8 “Game BPI” in its 90-63 win against Duke is the best performance by any team this season.

Which team do the fans think should be No. 1? We asked fans to tweet their choice at @ESPNStatsInfo on Twitter and the verdict was overwhelming: Miami got more than half the votes.
Some notes from North Carolina coach Roy Williams, who spoke Monday during the ACC's weekly conference call:

MCADOO BOUNCEBACK? North Carolina’s 26-point loss at Miami on Saturday was particularly tough for forward James Michael McAdoo, who posted only his second single-digit scoring performance of the season (six points on 3-for-12 shooting).

How he responds at No. 2 Duke on Wednesday night will be key to whether the Tar Heels have any chance of pulling off an upset in the rivalry game.

“I hope he bounces back greatly,’’ Williams said. “I’ve had some players in the past – Kirk Hinrich [at Kansas], when he played poorly, the next game, he was going to be off the charts good. I told him I’d rather he play real good and real good.

“I don’t think we have enough body of work to [know] how James Michael bounces back.”

As much as McAdoo struggled, Williams said the Hurricanes should also be credited for their performance against UNC’s leading scorer. “It’s not just about how North Carolina does; I mean, James Michael takes it to the basket to dunk it twice, and [Miami’s Kenny] Kadji blocks both of them,’’ Williams said. “There’s not many guys in the country who can do that. And that makes it look like James Michael couldn’t succeed on that play, as opposed to what a great play Kadji [makes].”

Williams said he continues to be “very concerned” about McAdoo’s sore back. It bothered the sophomore on Friday, Williams said, but on Saturday morning the player said it felt good.

STARTING CHOICES: Williams used a plethora of different combinations to try to get something going at Miami, saying Monday: “If you're getting your tail beat by 26, I don't think you can stay with the same lineup. I think you have to keep trying to change some things.”

But one combination he hasn’t changed recently: the starting lineup. And when he was asked what he sees out of the starters (McAdoo, Desmond Hubert, Reggie Bullock, Marcus Paige, Dexter Strickland) that makes him believe he has the right five opening both halves, it didn’t sound like that would change.

The coach’s response: “They’re the five best because they won the job in practice. Period. The end. There’s no question, they’ve won the job in practice.”

Williams noted that he often makes a change within the first four or five minutes in a game, usually pulling Paige to give the point guard an early breather. "I worry about a freshman, a 160-pound freshman in this league playing 35 minutes in the game,'' he said. "I would like to have him at the end of the season. I don't want to wear him down.”

Bullock, who led the team with 14 points, played 26 minutes. Reserve P.J. Hairston the second-leading scorer with 11 points, played 19 minutes.

QUOTE-WORTHY: How does Williams feel about being the underdog Wednesday night against the Blue Devils?

“I love being the underdog if I’m pretty doggone good,’’ he said. “If you’re not very good, it doesn’t make any difference. … We haven’t had many chances to be the underdog in the 10 years I’ve been back, but I’d rather be the favorite because that means you’re really good. It does give you some things to use, psychologically and all that junk. But I’d rather be the favorite; I’d rather be really good.”

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- A quick look at Miami’s 87-61 win over North Carolina on Saturday.

Overview: Any lingering doubters out there about the Hurricanes? Didn’t think so.

Miami ran its record to 10-0 in the ACC, dominating the Tar Heels in a game that was one in name only. Bigger, older and tougher, Miami ran roughshod over North Carolina at home, drilling the Heels on offense and frustrating them on defense.

In uproariously topsy-turvy and unpredictable season, Miami may be one of the nation's few reliable teams.

Turning point: Tipoff. Seriously. Kenny Kadji hit a 3-pointer, setting the tone for what was to come. The Hurricanes led 13-2 early and never looked back.

Key player: Shane Larkin. The Miami guard is the prototype for the new model point guard, a guy who can score (18 points) and create (nine assists). He is equal parts nimble and smart, a deft ball handler but a savvy distributor as well and the engine for a pretty well-oiled Hurricanes machine.

Key stat: The Hurricanes owned the box score but really made the difference beyond the arc. Miami, which had a season high of 11 3-pointers coming into the game, swished 10 in the first half and finished with 15.

Miscellaneous: Midway through the first half, the BankUnited Center crowd stood up collectively and whipped out camera phones. Why? LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were in the house. Yes, the Hurricanes have officially arrived. James didn’t want to talk. “Nah, it’s my day off," he told ESPN.com. This was Miami’s first win at home against North Carolina since Jan. 4, 2003.

Next game: From the "you’ve got be kidding me" annals of scheduling cruelty, the Tar Heels head to Duke on Wednesday for the first of its two annual tap dances with the Blue Devils. Miami has something of a rivalry game too, but not quite like UNC. The Hurricanes are next at Florida State on Wednesday.

Numbers to Know: Wednesday recap

January, 24, 2013
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Player of the Night – Kenny Kadji, Miami (FL)

The Hurricanes crushed Duke 90-63, the third-biggest loss ever suffered by an AP No. 1 team. Kenny Kadji scored a career-high 22 points on 9-for-11 shooting from the field. Over the past 15 years, the only players to shoot that well against the nation’s top-ranked team were North Carolina’s Sean May (2005) and Louisville’s Kyle Kuric (2010). Oh, and Kadji did all of that while going up against Wooden Award candidate Mason Plumlee.

Scorer of the Night – Murphy Burnatowski, Colgate

Colgate snapped a three-game losing streak with a 93-90 overtime win over Army. Murphy Burnatowski scored a career-high 35 points, including the game-winning 3-pointer with 12 seconds to go. He added eight rebounds and three assists. He’s the first Colgate player to reach all three of those totals since Adonal Foyle in 1997.

Bench Player of the Night – Richard Carter, Drake

Richard Carter poured in a career-high 20 points off the bench, as Drake beat No. 17 Creighton 74-67. It was Drake’s first win over a ranked foe since 2008. Aided by a career-high 12 points from Daddy Ugbede, Drake’s bench outscored its starters 43-31.

Blowout of the Night – Southern Miss 102, Marshall 46

Southern Miss beat Marshall by 56 points, its largest win in 56 years. It was also the largest margin ever in a matchup of Conference USA teams. Marshall committed 31 turnovers, the most in a conference game this season. DeAndre Kane was responsible for 11 of those, tied for the most by a player this season.

Ugly Stat of the Night – Seth Curry, Quinn Cook & Tyler Thornton, Duke

Seth Curry (0-10), Quinn Cook (1-12) and Tyler Thornton (0-7) combined to go 1-for-29 from the floor in Duke’s loss. That’s 3.4 percent. That includes 1-for-14 from 3-point range (7.1 percent). Duke shot just 29.7 percent from the field, the lowest for a No. 1 team since Duke shot 27.7 percent against LSU in the 2006 Sweet 16.

Miami fans, dance; Duke fans, breathe

January, 23, 2013
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Yes, it happened. Duke, the No. 1 team in America, scored 19 points in the first half of a 90-63 loss at Miami on Wednesday night. It was tied for the program's most-lopsided loss in the past 15 years.

The Blue Devils also endured the third-largest loss by a No. 1 team in Division I history. Miami earned its first victory over a No. 1 team in seven tries.

But it’s only Jan. 23.

So what’s the proper way to digest this? That all depends on your allegiance, I guess.

If you’re a Duke fan ... Don’t cry. You’re used to this. When your favorite squad gets whipped, it usually leaves the scrap with a broken nose and two black eyes. Remember last season? The Blue Devils went to Columbus and lost to Ohio State by 22 in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. North Carolina beat them by 18 in Durham last March. The season before that, they were ranked No. 3 when they went to New York and suffered a 93-78 loss to St. John’s. In 2009-10, the last time they won the national title, they took a 14-point road loss against an unranked North Carolina State team.

My point is that Duke has proved in past years that it’s resilient enough to recover from these lopsided losses. They almost seem normal now. (Although I can’t say I envy any player who will be subjected to coach Mike Krzyzewski's next practice session, which could commence the recovery process.)

But this was an embarrassment. And it’s easy to say the absence of Ryan Kelly (13.4 points and 1.7 blocks per game, 52.1 percent from the 3-point line) was the main reason for the loss. I’m sure he would have helped -- although he was 3-for-10 the last time he played the same Miami frontcourt last season -- but I’m certain he wouldn’t have single-handedly closed the entire 27-point gap.

The Blue Devils struggled from the 3-point line (4-for-23) Wednesday. They’ve shot 23.3 percent from beyond the arc in their two road losses. At home and on neutral courts (16-0), they’ve registered a 43.1 percent clip from beyond the arc.

Kelly could have given them a boost on the perimeter. But what about Miami’s easy buckets in the paint? The dunks? The jump shots Duke couldn’t stop? What about the turnovers? The missed layups? The backcourt that watched the game from the team’s hotel? The selfish one-on-one basketball that belied everything Coach K teaches? No excuses. The Blue Devils didn’t show up, and they didn’t execute. With an entire half to play, they came out of the locker room with the body language of a squad that wanted to get back on the bus and go home.

It was a poor effort against an underrated team that clearly is capable of contending for the ACC crown. But it also was Duke’s second consecutive letdown on the road (it has lost both its true road games this season). The Blue Devils fell from their No. 1 post the first time when they suffered an 84-76 loss at NC State on Jan. 12. Yes, they need Kelly. But even when the 6-foot-11 standout returns, they’re going to stumble again in the ACC if they play the way they did Wednesday night, especially when they’re on the road.

[+] EnlargeRion Brown
Robert Mayer/USA TODAY SportsUnhindered Miami dunks, like this one from Rion Brown, are out of character for Coach K's Duke.
If you’re a Miami fan ... Somebody call Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez and LeBron James ... even Pitbull, if that’s your style. It’s time to dance in the streets of Miami. Yes, Hurricanes. We see you now. And to be honest, it should not have taken this long. We’ve given a bunch of programs passes for injuries and suspensions.

But Durand Scott and Reggie Johnson didn’t warrant the scrutiny we've given Kelly even though the two Hurricanes starters have missed 12 games combined. Scott (NCAA suspension) wasn’t available during the November loss to Florida Gulf Coast. Johnson (broken thumb) was absent during losses to Arizona and Indiana State.

So coach Jim Larranaga hasn’t had a Miami squad at 100 percent for the majority of the 2012-13 campaign. Still, the Hurricanes’ 5-0 start is the program’s best start in nine years as a member of the ACC.

I think Johnson’s surprising return was more of an emotional boost for the team than anything. He was clearly rusty after missing eight games with a thumb injury. But the Hurricanes finally had all their key pieces. The result? They pounced on the No. 1 team in America.

I have to give my wise colleague John Gasaway credit for this must-read commentary on Miami’s D Insider, ranked 12th in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings. In a Wednesday pregame post, Gasaway wrote: “Surprises have been plentiful in Coral Gables of late, but Larranaga and his players may be working on the biggest one of all. ‘Miami’ and ‘deep tournament run’ may not be mutually exclusive terms much longer.”

Preach, John.

There is upper-level defense. And then there is Miami’s defensive execution against the Blue Devils.

This Miami squad held the Blue Devils to a 2-for-11 mark from the 3-point line in the first half. Krzyzewski's squad didn’t score a field goal for an eight-minute stretch before halftime. Quinn Cook and Seth Curry were a combined 1-for-22.

I don’t know whether I’ve ever witnessed a Duke team get punched in the mouth like that. I was in Columbus when Duke lost to Ohio State by 22 last season. But this was different. The Hurricanes’ defense really sucked the life out of the Blue Devils.

Kenny Kadji (22 points), Shane Larkin (18 points, 10 rebounds) and Scott (25 points) made sure Miami maintained a significant scoring margin. But the team’s collective defense was superb.

And now, the ACC race will be more interesting. NC State just lost to Wake Forest. Miami is undefeated in conference play, with a win over Duke. Kelly will return, and the Blue Devils will maintain their post as the most talented team in the conference. North Carolina and Maryland are intriguing.

Overall, the biggest development of the evening is that the ACC is not a one- or two-team league. Duke’s early push opposed that theory. The Hurricanes can win this league because of their defensive prowess and the fact that they’re finally healthy. And as Gasaway noted, the Hurricanes are built to make noise in March, too.

Now, it’s late January. And Miami eventually will play North Carolina State (road), North Carolina (home) and Duke again (road). So things could change.

But the Canes made a statement Wednesday night about their status in the conference.

In the words of the great Pitbull, from his song “Triumph,” "They thought he was done, dawg, but he's back bigger, better, stronger and free.”

I guess that describes Miami.

Should be the team’s new anthem.

Conference Power Rankings: ACC

January, 11, 2013
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Can we just call places 3 through 6 a tie? After the first week of ACC play, it’s harder than ever to judge the middle of the league pack. But here are this week’s ACC Power Rankings, based on myriad factors, including how teams have performed lately and the foes they've faced:

1. Duke. Still undefeated, still No. 1 after victories over Wake Forest and Clemson. But the Blue Devils will be tested Saturday not only by an NC State team that has won nine in a row, but by playing without senior forward Ryan Kelly, who is out indefinitely with an injured right foot.

2. NC State. The Wolfpack was picked to win the ACC during the preseason by both media and coaches, and Saturday’s home game against the Blue Devils will show if it has what it takes to make that push. Lorenzo Brown, with 21 points against Georgia Tech, was the latest to lead his team in scoring. Who’s next?

3. Miami. The Hurricanes have never started 2-0 in the ACC -- until now. Senior forward Kenny Kadji had 18 points to help break his team’s 10-game losing streak to UNC on Thursday night, and sixth-year senior Julian Gamble (14 points against the Tar Heels) has been filling in admirably for the injured Reggie Johnson.

4. Maryland. Dez Wells had a bad shooting night, Alex Len at times got pushed around, and the Terps saw their 13-game winning streak snapped via a 12-point comeback by Florida State. Whether they bounce back at Miami this weekend could be a good indication of whether they’re a top-tier ACC team.

5. Florida State. Junior forward Okaro White has come up big during the Seminoles’ 2-0 ACC start, averaging 17.5 points and 8 rebounds. And so has his team. "We sat down, the juniors and seniors, with the young guys and told them we have to stop talking, and we have to show them how hard you have to play,’’ White told Tallahassee.com.

6. Virginia. Beat North Carolina, only to lose to Wake Forest? It might be that sort of topsy-turvy season for the Cavs, who should get more and more of a boost as senior guard Jontel Evans, who returned from injury last weekend, gets more and more back in sync with the offense.

7. North Carolina. Coach Roy Williams said his team was stressed in the locker room after losing to Miami on Thursday night. And for good reason: This marks only the fourth time UNC has ever started 0-2 in the ACC, and things won’t get any easier at Florida State on Saturday.

8. Boston College. The Eagles have now won six of their past seven games, and gave NC State a scare in their only loss since Dec. 4. Sophomore Lonnie Jackson has posted double digit points for three consecutive games, including a season-high 22 at Virginia Tech.

9. Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets had a six-game winning streak broken by the start of ACC play. Tech is shooting just 35.2 percent during its 0-2 conference start.

10. Wake Forest. Despite shooting just 26 percent after halftime and failing to score a field goal for the final 10 minutes, the Deacs survived Virginia’s comeback attempt. “We stayed with it,” Wake Forest forward Travis McKie told The Times-News. “I think early in the season we would’ve put our head down and had a pity party. But we stayed with it and continued to fight hard.” Wake has now won five of seven games.

11. Clemson. The Tigers scored only 10 points, on just 12 percent shooting, in the first half at Duke on Wednesday. Yikes. Devin Booker has posted two double-doubles in Clemson’s 0-2 ACC start.

12. Virginia Tech. Already-undermanned Tech was down to six scholarship players during its midweek loss to BC, thanks to illness and injury. Erick Green continues to lead the nation in scoring, but the Hokies have now lost four in a row, and are 0-2 in ACC play.
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- There were times, early in Miami forward Julian Gamble's left-knee rehab, when he wondered if he’d ever be able to even hop without pain -- much less battle for back-to-back offensive rebounds and score on a putback to jump-start a game-winning run at North Carolina.

Breaking the Tar Heels’ 10-game winning streak over the Hurricanes?

Starting 2-0 in the ACC for the first time since his team joined the league?

Winning at the Smith Center, just a short drive from his Durham, N.C., hometown, 68-59?

Yes, Gamble said Thursday night, returning for a sixth year was certainly worth it.

“Of course this is what you hope for,” Gamble said after notching 14 points, 6 rebounds and 3 blocks en route to pushing UNC to 0-2 in the ACC. “But not just for me -- for my team.”

Indeed, the victory marked the road-tested Hurricanes' third consecutive victory -- perhaps extra impressive, considering all have been without center(piece) Reggie Johnson.

When the 6-foot-10, 292-pound center fractured his thumb last month before the Hurricanes' trip to the Diamond Head Classic, there was worry about how the guard-heavy team would adapt without his defensive presence in the lane and double-double (12.6 points, 10.1 rebounds) average per game.

Going 1-2 in the Diamond Head Classic didn’t exactly help curb that concern.

But Gamble’s play of late just might.

[+] EnlargeJulian Gamble, Reggie Johnson
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesWith center Reggie Johnson, right, out, Julian Gamble has stepped up of late, averaging 9 points and 7 boards his past three games.
In wins against La Salle and at Georgia Tech, he averaged 6.5 points and 7.5 rebounds.

And making his sixth straight start in place of Johnson on Thursday, the 6-10, 250-pounder was even more aggressive from the outset. With Miami trailing 32-30 at the break, the team went to him early and often in the second half, wanting to establish an offensive presence in the lane to help open things up for its outside shooters. And he delivered, scoring six of Miami’s first seven points to make it 37-all.

“I feel like we’re a bigger, stronger, more physical, more experienced team than them [the Tar Heels] at this point, so we just had to take advantage of it,” said Gamble, who got plenty of advice and words of encouragement from Johnson on the bench.

His biggest advantage-taking moment came with 4 minutes, 31 seconds left.

After UNC reserve P.J. Hairston buried a 3-pointer to cut Miami’s lead to 56-55, Gamble grabbed teammate Durand Scott's missed 3-pointer. Playing with four fouls but backing off not one bit, he missed the putback, but grabbed another rebound in traffic and made that one to put his team up by three points -- and jump-start an 8-0 run.

“I was just thinking ‘Be relentless, outwork them,’” Gamble said. “That’s what one of our coaches always tells us: No matter what happens, no matter what adversity happens, just keep working.”

It was that mentality, too, Gamble said, that helped get him through the frustrations of rehabilitation after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during a workout in August 2011. There were days, he remembered, when medication barely numbed the pain. He didn’t know until February whether the NCAA would allow him to play for a rare sixth year (he redshirted his freshman season, in 2007-08). And he actually had to undergo a second knee surgery, he said, when a lesion was found on the back of his ACL graft.

“It was another blow to my mindset, and my confidence: Was I ever going to play like I could before?” he said.

But he is.

Maybe, at times, even better.

“Reggie Johnson is a tremendous inside presence, he’s a low-post player, back to the basket, and he helps us a lot of different ways,” Miami coach Jim Larranaga said. “But Julian has done an admirable job, stepping up and defending, rebounding and scoring. Tonight, he had double figures, 7-for-10 from the field, 14 points and 6 rebounds. That’s an outstanding performance, especially in a game like this where every possession counts.”

Senior Kenny Kadji led the Canes with 18 points and 9 rebounds Thursday. James Michael McAdoo led UNC with 14 points and 6 rebounds, although Miami held the Tar Heels to just one field goal (that Hairston 3-pointer) during a crucial 7-minute span in the second half.

“[This win] gives us great confidence, but at the same time, we know we have 16 more games left,” Gamble said. “It’s the beginning of the conference season, and we don’t have a lot of time to dwell on this victory.”

Although after all that rehab, Gamble -- who had more than a dozen friends and family members in the crowd -- admits he does appreciate each "W" a bit more.

“To be playing basketball at the highest level, and to be playing at places like Duke and Carolina, and just having the opportunity to play in front of family and friends, it’s just a great feeling,” he said.

Rapid Reaction: Miami 68, UNC 59

January, 10, 2013
1/10/13
8:54
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Miami is 2-0 in ACC play for the first time since joining the league in 2004-05, after beating North Carolina 68-59 at the Smith Center on Thursday night. The Tar Heels fell to 0-2. A quick look at the game:

Turning point: The game was tight through the first 15 minutes, with neither team leading by more than six. And UNC reserve P.J. Hairston tried to keep it that way when he cut Miami’s lead to 56-55 on a 3-pointer with 4:45 left.

But Miami forward Julian Gamble scored on a putback, then Trey McKinney Jones and Durand Scott hit back-to-back 3s to give Miami a 64-55 advantage with 3:04 left.

UNC didn’t score again until the 1:44 mark, on a James Michael McAdoo putback to cut the lead to 64-57. But Miami’s Kenny Kadji came up with two big blocks to help his team keep its cushion, and the victory.

Key player(s): Kadji led Miami with 18 points. McAdoo had 14 for UNC.

Noteworthy number: Miami broke a 10-game losing streak against the Tar Heels. The last time it had previously beaten UNC: Jan. 14, 2006 in Chapel Hill.

Etc.: UNC reserve guard Leslie McDonald, who missed the team’s last two practices with a sore right knee, was on the bench in street clothes for the game. … Miami big man Reggie Johnson missed his sixth straight game, because of a fractured thumb.

Next up: North Carolina will play at Florida State on Saturday. Miami hosts Maryland on Sunday night.

What I can't wait to see: ACC

October, 19, 2012
10/19/12
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Here are five storylines I look forward to following during the ACC this season.

What I can’t wait to see:

Will North Carolina State live up to the hype?

For the past nine seasons, the conference title has been won by North Carolina or Duke. But this year NC State is the heavy favorite. The Wolfpack are the logical pick thanks to the return of players such as C.J. Leslie and Lorenzo Brown, and the addition of highly touted newcomers like Rodney Purvis. It also helps that Duke and North Carolina each lost most of their key players. Still, let’s not forget that this is a team that finished in a three-way tie for fourth in the ACC last season with a 9-7 record. Mark Gottfried’s squad went on a nice run in the NCAA tournament and almost upset Kansas in the Sweet 16. Is that the Wolfpack team we’ll see this season? Or will we see the squad that was marginal for most of 2011-12? My guess is the former.

How quickly will Duke’s Rasheed Sulaimon adapt to the college game?

The Blue Devils lost guard and leading scorer Austin Rivers to the NBA draft, and Andre Dawkins will redshirt this season. Duke still has Seth Curry -- and it’s confident that sophomore Quinn Cook will take a big leap. Still, the backcourt is thin. As the 12th-ranked prospect in the Class of 2012 by ESPN.com, the 6-foot-4 Sulaimon is skilled enough to get on the court immediately and be a major factor for the Blue Devils. But it takes things other than skill to play for Mike Krzyzewski. How well will Sulaimon defend? How quickly will he pick up Duke’s system? How good a teammate will he be? Thus far the reports out of Durham have been positive.

Can Dez Wells play for Maryland?

Wells is practicing with Terps, but is awaiting a waiver that would allow him to play immediately after transferring during the summer from Xavier, where he was dismissed for a violation of the student code of conduct. Head coach Mark Turgeon is crossing his fingers that the waiver is granted, because the addition of Wells would greatly enhance Maryland’s chances of making the NCAA tournament after a two-year hiatus. Wells averaged 9.8 points and 4.9 rebounds for Xavier last season.

North Carolina will likely take a step back -- but will it be a big one?

The Tar Heels won the NCAA title in 2009 and then lost Tyler Hansbrough, Wayne Ellington, Ty Lawson, Danny Green and others to the NBA. The following year they went 20-17 overall and 5-11 in the ACC. Will North Carolina -- which was one of the top two teams in country last season until Kendall Marshall got hurt -- take a similar slide this season after losing Marshall, John Henson, Tyler Zeller and Harrison Barnes? The guess here is no. North Carolina might not be as strong as it was in 2011-12, but it still has a roster stacked with talent. James Michael McAdoo, P.J. Hairston and Reggie Bullock are NBA-caliber players. Dexter Strickland is an experienced guard, and standout recruit Marcus Paige should have a quick impact. The Tar Heels shouldn’t finish any lower than third in the ACC.

Who is the fourth-best team?

Let’s assume North Carolina State, Duke and North Carolina -- and not necessarily in that order -- will occupy the top three slots. Who comes next? Maryland and Miami certainly have to be considered. Nick Faust, James Padgett, Pe'Shon Howard and Alex Len all return for the Terps, who have added a top-flight recruit in 6-foot-9, 270-pound forward Shaquille Cleare. Reggie Johnson, Durand Scott and Kenny Kadji are back for Miami. The coaches of both teams (Turgeon at Maryland and Jim Larranaga at Miami) are in their second season, which means each program should take significant strides. Still, I think the “next best” team outside of the top three will be Florida State. Not only that, but come February, I wouldn’t be shocked if Leonard Hamilton’s squad was in the mix for the ACC title. Year after year, the Seminoles lose good players. And year after year, Hamilton finds a way to keep his team relevant. Not many squads in the country defend as well as Florida State, which returns standout guard Michael Snaer.

Rapid Reaction: UNC 73, Miami 56

January, 10, 2012
1/10/12
11:07
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- A quick look at No. 3 North Carolina’s 73-56 win over Miami at the Smith Center on Tuesday night:

How it happened: UNC’s starting backcourt -- criticized at times for its lack of scoring this season -- got the Tar Heels out to a strong start. While UNC’s "Big Three" of Tyler Zeller, John Henson and Harrison Barnes made only 5 of 19 shots in the first half, starting guards Kendall Marshall and Dexter Strickland were 7-for-9, pushing the Tar Heels to a 40-25 halftime lead.

Marshall, known more for his assists than his field goals, was particularly aggressive. He began a first-half-ending 9-0 run by beating UM reserve Shane Larkin on consecutive drives to the bucket for baskets. On Marshall’s third straight drive, he fed the ball to Henson, who was fouled.

UNC stretched that run to 17-0 before the Hurricanes scored about 3 minutes into the second half, and Miami had no answer.

In the end, Marshall scored in double figures (12 points) for the first time this season, while Strickland added 14 (tying his season-high), as well. Zeller led the team with 16 points.

Kenny Kadji led Miami, which was out-rebounded by 16 and shot 41.8 percent, with 16 points.

Injury report: UNC freshman forward James Michael McAdoo, questionable (at least) to play for the second straight game because of a sprained left ankle, nonetheless played for the second straight game. The reserve played 12 minutes, scoring two points.

Number to know: UNC now has stretched its home winning streak to 28 straight. It began with a win against Miami, 69-62, back on March 2, 2010.

(Another) number to know: Barnes, who had scored in double figures in 28 of his previous 30 games (and had recorded 20 or more in three of his previous four outings), finished with six points on 2-for-12 shooting.

Hubbub: Former “Voice of the Tar Heels” Woody Durham, who served as UNC’s play-by-play announcer for 40 years, was honored at halftime; the radio booth has now been named the “Woody Durham Tar Heel Sports Network Radio Booth.”

What’s next: UNC will play their first road game since Dec. 3 when it travels to Florida State on Saturday. The Hurricanes play Clemson at home on Wednesday, Jan. 18.

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.

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