Duke’s rematch with fifth-ranked Miami this evening already was a big game, one that was supposed to give the third-ranked Blue Devils the chance to avenge an ugly loss and close the gap in the Atlantic Coast Conference race.
It’s even bigger now for a team that needs to regain some swagger after a tough three-week stretch that has seen the ACC regular-season title all but slip away after Thursday’s loss at Virginia.
“There is no time to feel sorry for ourselves,” Duke senior Mason Plumlee said after the loss. “We have to come back because we are playing Miami.”
In the past three weeks, Duke (24-4, 11-4 ACC) won by a point at struggling Boston College, had a tough home win against rival North Carolina and lost on the road to both Maryland and Virginia. The loss to the Cavaliers gave the Hurricanes (23-4, 14-1) a share of the regular-season title, and Miami will win it outright as long as it doesn’t lose its last three games.
The Blue Devils are still hoping for forward Ryan Kelly to return to the lineup at some point from a foot injury that has sidelined him since January. They’re also relying heavily on Seth Curry despite the senior rarely practicing due to persistent shin pain that began in preseason, while Plumlee has struggled in Duke’s recent losses.
Then there’s the issue of Miami’s 90-63 win against the Blue Devils in January, a stunningly one-sided result that made it clear the Hurricanes were ready to take a huge leap forward under second-year coach Jim Larranaga. The last time Duke had lost a regular-season game by a bigger margin was in January 1984, during Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski’s fourth season.
It was also the third-worst defeat ever for a No. 1-ranked team.
As if all that weren’t bad enough, the Hurricanes irked the Blue Devils by slapping the floor on defense, an apparent jab at past Blue Devils who did that as a show of being ready to play defense.
Krzyzewski said his players weren’t looking ahead to that rematch when they lost to the Cavaliers, a game that marked the fourth time this year that the Blue Devils had to make their way off the court while celebrating fans stormed onto it.
“We’ll get ready,” Krzyzewski said. “That’s what I’ve done for 38 years. We’ll get ready. We’ll play. We’ve won a lot of games doing it that way. We have a quick turnaround. No excuses. You get beat. Next play. Let’s go.”
The Blue Devils made it into January unscathed despite playing a nonconference schedule that included Kentucky, Louisville and Ohio State. But things changed when Kelly, a 6-foot-11 senior, went out indefinitely with a right foot injury.
Kelly was averaging 13 points and five rebounds, but his value came more in the way he could stretch defenses with his outside shot and open space for Plumlee inside. He’s missed 13 straight games, though he has improved enough to do some limited work in practice and he even participated in pregame warm-ups before the Virginia game.
He still has yet to fully practice with the team, so it’s unclear exactly when he might return or how effective he’d be.
Miami forward Kenny Kadji figured the winner of Saturday’s game should be the No. 1 team in the country, but that was before Duke’s loss at Virginia.
“It’s going to be a great game,” Kadji said this week. “They’re going to be ready. They have been talking about it. It’s going to be fun.”
For the Blue Devils, it’ll be just as much about trying to reclaim some momentum.
“When you lose or have a bad game, you want to get back out there on the court as quick as possible and be better,” Curry said. “That’s why I like this game. Instead of having to sit around and dwell on (the Virginia loss), you get to get back out there and compete.”