Miami appears to be putting together a season for the ages while storming to the top of the ACC, and people are taking notice. The eighth-ranked Hurricanes can strengthen their hold atop the conference Saturday when they host North Carolina in front of a sellout crowd.
The only team in a major conference without a loss in league play, Miami (18-3, 9-0) has a two-game lead over No. 4 Duke and a three-game cushion over North Carolina (16-6, 6-3) in the ACC. Given the lack of dominant teams above them in the AP Top 25, the Hurricanes - enjoying their second-highest ranking in school history - have a chance to play themselves into a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament if they are able to maintain their unprecedented pace.
They showed the mark of a mature team by not looking ahead to this contest and taking care of last-place Boston College on Tuesday with a 72-50 victory. Reserve Rion Brown had a career high-tying 22 points for Miami, which matched its best single-season ACC win total since joining the conference in 2004-05.
"We have a senior-laden team, and those guys are very hungry,'' coach Jim Larranaga said. "They're having fun playing together.''
While playing the Eagles did not pack the BankUnited Center - attendance was only 5,149 - the marquee opponent in North Carolina will give Miami its third capacity crowd in four home games. That raucous atmosphere led to a pair of blowout victories, most notably a 90-63 pummeling of then-No. 1 Duke on Jan. 23 that raised its national profile.
Point guard Shane Larkin continues to be the guiding force of the Hurricanes. Averaging 12.8 points, 4.2 rebounds and a team-best 4.1 assists while compiling a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, the sophomore playmaker is also shooting 41.8 percent from 3-point range to keep Miami's offense in balance.
"We believe in ourselves, and the rankings have furthered that confidence,'' Larkin says. "The way we're playing, our confidence is through the roof. Hopefully we can just keep it going.''
Despite an impressive-looking record, the Tar Heels are still seeking a signature win as their biggest victory to date came over a UNLV team that has since fallen out of the Top 25. They also have double-digit losses to Butler, No. 1 Indiana and Texas as well as a loss at then-No. 18 N.C. State and an earlier 68-59 home defeat to the Hurricanes.
North Carolina has won three straight since that loss to the Wolfpack and put together one of its most complete efforts Tuesday in an 87-62 rout of Wake Forest. Reggie Bullock had 23 points and James Michael McAdoo scored 20 as the Tar Heels shot 51.6 percent and scored 26 points off Demon Deacons turnovers.
"The games that we've lost, you can see that we took bad shots and we had turnovers and that just made the other team's offense so much easier," said McAdoo, who leads the team in scoring at 15.3 points per game. "It made our defense harder, so that's something we're really trying to work on, just getting a good shot that the whole team wants. When that happens everybody can contribute."
McAdoo and Bullock took plenty of bad shots in the loss to Miami on Jan. 10, combining to go 9 for 30 from the field as the Tar Heels shot 40.0 percent overall. Kenny Kadji had 18 points to lead four Hurricanes in double figures and also pulled down nine rebounds for their third win in 21 all-time meetings between the teams.
Miami is 0-5 at home versus North Carolina since joining the ACC.