If there's a team that as most dramatically failed to live up to the expectations of conference play this season, well that team is obviously N.C. State. If there's a second team, however, it's Miami. At the start of the new year, the Hurricanes were respectable if not impressive. They'd recovered from an early embarrassing loss to Rutgers and gone 11-3; a decent 8-8 trip through the conference as expected would, if not get them to the tournament, at least give them a postseason trip and lay a foundation for a good year next season.
Instead, nothing is coming up Miami. The Hurricanes have lost four of their five conference games, including two straight heartbreakers last week. The first was a 55-53 loss to Florida State at home, in a thoroughly ugly game where FSU was held without a bucket for almost the first ten minutes of the game. Miami's led by 10 at one point in the second, but couldn't beat a Seminole team that shot 32% from the floor, as FSU went on a 12-0 run to claim the lead late. The Hurricanes then went to Raleigh and fell behind by 17 to State; they rallied to cut it to one but could never get closer, and now sit just one game ahead of Wake Forest in the ACC futility race.
What this team has going for it is a decent offense. They play a slow game, but shoot well and more importantly, have Reggie Johnson underneath to hoover up the boards. Johnson is third in the nation in offensive rebounding, and gets a lot of points on second chances. He, like other big men this season, gave Duke fits a few weeks ago in Durham, and provided he can stay out of foul trouble, he has the potential to frustrate the considerably less bulked-up Tyler Zeller.
The guys doing most of the shooting for Miami are the backcourt duo of Malcolm Grant and Durand Scott. Scott you may remember from a 29-point performance as a freshman against UNC last season. That's still his career high, by the way. He's taken at least 12 shots in every ACC game to date, so expect him to shoot early and often, but not typically for three. Grant will be the guy taking the long shots, despite ostensibly being the point guard. He sinks them at a pretty impressive rate, does the even more selective sixth-year senior, Adrian Thomas. Thomas is also a tall wing, and as such will probably be seeing a lot of Harrison Barnes; that could be trouble for the freshman on defense.
Where the Hurricanes flail is on the defensive end. They've given up over a point per possession in every ACC game but the wretched FSU match, and average 1.1 points per trip down the floor through those five. While UNC's poor shooting can cure a lot of opponents' defensive woes, Miami also doesn't force many turnovers, and even slacks off on the boards on that end of the court. UNC should be able to run against the Hurricanes, and keep their defense even further out of sync. Couple that with a strong inside presence that keeps Johnson in foul trouble and exploits the weaknesses of the rest of the team's frontcourt, and Carolina should get the win.
A word of caution though – this is a home game for Miami, and Miami is a much better team at home. They haven't won in conference on the road since 2009, but beat a better Boston College team in Coral Gables, and didn't give the FSU offense fits in another home game. UNC hasn't played for over a week, while Leslie McDonald and Reggie Bullock did not practice until Monday due to a collapsed lung and a swollen knee, respectively. Add to that Justin Watts being most likely out with an ankle sprain, a week of distractions over Roy Williams' post-game comments, and apparently the flight from hell, and the table is set for something to go horribly wrong for the Heels. They should be able to handle it, and Miami, but you just can't take anything for granted this season, can you?