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Best Basketball Hoopla in Miami: Heat or Hurricanes?

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COMMENTARY | Yes, the Miami Heat are the defending NBA champs. Yes, they've built a super team around three stars. Or two, depending on who's counting.

But the Heat might not be the most exciting basketball team in Miami this year. To be quite frank, that distinction belongs to the Miami Hurricanes.

The 'Canes are the only unbeaten NCAA Division I team in a major conference in 2013. With blowout wins over No. 1 Duke, 90-63, and in-state rival Florida State, 71-47, and another impressive win at No. 19 North Carolina State, 79-78, in Raleigh, the Hurricanes have become the talk of the town.

The Heat still own the best record in the Eastern Conference with a two-and-a-half game lead over the New York Knicks after the weekend. But some, even in Miami, question whether the Heat can repeat. A lot of pundits think Indiana might be bully enough to push past the Heat in the playoffs this year. The Pacers have already beaten Miami twice in the regular season. But seven-game series are a different animal. And the last couple years, not many have matched the Heat's mettle with a series on the line.

That begs the question: when the NCAA tournament or even the ACC Championships are at stake, will the Hurricanes be battle-tested enough to forge forward? Some say they have it this year with a senior-heavy group capable of rising to the cream of the crop.

This is all new to the Canes, who haven't had a basketball team worth mentioning in who knows how long. But since coach Jim Larranaga took over, this is a different basketball school. In fact, the Hurricanes basketball team defines the university now more than football.

Indeed, Miami Hurricanes basketball is creating a buzz in the city. The Canes have won 11 straight following Saturday's beatdown of perennial ACC power North Carolina in which the Heat's Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and James Jones were in attendance, cheering on the Hurricanes. Before the Duke game, fans in Coral Gables camped out on campus outside the BankUnited Center for a day, slept in tents and ate doughnuts on Larranaga's dime. After the win over the No. 1 Dukies, Hurricanes fans mobbed the court. Larranaga would later say he wished the fans would rush the court after every win.

It's only been eight months since the Heat captivated Miami's heart with their second NBA title in franchise history. The first with D-Wade and Shaquille O'Neal in 2006 lit up the city -- a promise that Shaq made good on after leaving the Lakers for South Beach. LeBron backed up his word with a title last year.

But for the moment, in a town where football on the high school level is usually always at the peak nationwide and the Miami Dolphins still are the only NFL team in league history to go wire-to-wire without a loss in a season, basketball has taken center stage. Yeah, there is another school in Miami with a basketball team in Barry University, where Shaq graduated with a doctoral degree last May, but the Division II school in Miami Shores hasn't created the same type of hype the Hurricanes have this year. And keep in mind, the Hurricanes lost their season-opening exhibition game to Division II Saint Leo -- a team from the same conference as the Barry Buccaneers.

Since then, it's been Raising Canes reinvented. How long will this sequel last?

The Hurricanes have made just six NCAA tournament appearances in school history. The last time they advanced to the Big Dance was 2008 when they lost to Texas by three in the second round. But Larranaga has created a new culture in Coral Gables. This is a guy who guided George Mason -- of all schools -- to five NCAA tournaments, including a run to the 2006 Final Four before moving to Miami. Now he has the Canes thinking and playing big.

ESPN has the Hurricanes ranked No. 1 in the country in its BPI ratings. Digger Phelps, ESPN's college basketball analyst, has the Hurricanes as a possible No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Some even are saying the Hurricanes could rise to No. 1 in the national polls.

The Heat is still the city's team. Don't be misled. The Heat are drawing an average of 19,905 fans per game in the 19,600-seat American Airlines Arena. The Hurricanes are averaging 4,847 in their cozier confines of the BankUnited Center, which holds 7,200.

The difference is the Hurricanes, which are off to a 19-3 start, have won on the road. The Canes are 8-1 away from South Florida. The Heat are playing .500 ball away from Miami. In the playoffs and the NCAA tourney, both will have to win away from home.

So you make the call: Hurricanes or Heat?

One thing's for sure, if you choose the Canes, chances are there will be doughnuts waiting.

Jim McCurdy is a freelance sports writer based in Miami. He has written for major publications around the country. Follow him on Twitter at @irishcurds.

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