Blue Devils to face tough ACC road challenge at Miami

Jan. 22, 2013 @ 11:00 PM

Duke’s first trip to an opponent’s home court didn’t turn out well for the top-ranked Blue Devils.

After regaining the top spot in the polls it lost as a result of that 84-76 setback at N.C. State on Jan. 12, Duke heads to another hostile environment.

Surprise ACC leader Miami entered the Associated Press poll at No. 25 this week, just in time for No. 1 Duke to visit BankUnited Center tonight (7 p.m., ESPN).

Like Duke (16-1, 3-1 in ACC), the Hurricanes (13-3, 4-0) are navigating their ACC schedule without a senior starter.

Reggie Johnson, Miami’s 6-10, 292-pound center, broke his thumb in practice on Dec. 21 and is out six-to-eight weeks. The Hurricanes lost their first two games without him — to Arizona and Indiana State at the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii — but have since reeled off five wins in a row to earn the program’s first AP ranking since Jan. 23, 2010.

Duke, meanwhile will play its third game without Ryan Kelly, a 6-11 senior forward sidelined indefinitely with a right foot injury. Kelly, who remains on crutches with a protective boot, averaged 13.4 points and 5.4 rebounds while making 52 percent of his 3-pointers prior to his Jan. 8 injury.

Last season, Johnson scored 27 points and grabbed 12 rebounds when Miami beat Duke 78-74 in overtime at Cameron Indoor Stadium. But, with former Southern High School star Julian Gamble filling in for Johnson, the Hurricanes have continued to play well.

“Julian Gamble has done a fantastic job of moving into a starting role and playing a ton of minutes and defending, rebounding, scoring a little bit,” Miami coach Jim Larranaga. “But just being a great team player and doing whatever the coaches asked him to do.”

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said Miami’s core of veteran players makes the Hurricanes solid. Guard Durand Scott joins Gamble and 6-11 forward Kenny Kadji as senior starters for Miami.

“They’re an old, very good team,” Krzyzewski said. “They’re accustomed to playing together, and they’ve adjusted really well with a key guy out, although he’s been out at different times over the last couple years, so they’re a little bit more familiar with it. I’m sure they’d like to have him back, but they’re playing pretty well without him.”

Duke counts on its two remaining seniors starters — guard Seth Curry and center Mason Plumlee — to anchor its attack. With Kelly out, 6-7 junior Josh Hairston and 6-8 freshman Amile Jefferson are taking the bulk of his minutes.

Krzyzewski insists his team has a lower ceiling to reach without Kelly. But Larranaga said that doesn’t mean the challenge for his team will be easy with either Hairston or Jefferson in there.

“I don’t think anything has changed, other than Ryan Kelly is a great player that really stretches your defense, making threes,” Larranaga said. “But they just have a different weapon there. It’s a different player playing a different style because his strengths are a little bit different. But still a very, very good player.”

The challenge for Kelly’s replacements, though, is difficult tonight because of Kadji. An athletic big man like Kelly, Kadji has averaged 13.4 points, 7.9 rebounds and 1.9 blocked shots in the seven games since Johnson’s injury. Hairston and Jefferson will mostly be charged with slowing him down.

On offense, Krzyzewski said Kelly’s absence has allowed Duke’s two opponents since then to focus even more on the team’s top scorers — Plumlee (17.4 points) and Curry (16.9 points). Curry foiled that plan last Thursday against Georgia Tech, sinking six of seven 3-pointers to score 24 points in Duke’s 73-57 win.

With a share of the ACC lead at stake tonight, Krzyzewski said Duke’s execution in the new offensive sets its installed since Kelly’s injury will have to be sound.

“I think the thing that happens is roles change and points of emphasis and opponents’ attacks on you change and how they’re trying to stop you,” Krzyzewski said. “They can look at more ways of stopping Mason and Seth with Ryan being out, and that makes it more difficult for us to score. So we’re going to have to really do a good job of screening and getting each other open and really work — we’re trying to work at being much better in our execution on the offensive end.”