ACC tournament: Miami leads way but plenty of contenders

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GREENSBORO, N.C. — Miami rolled through most of the Atlantic Coast Conference season and coasted to the program’s first regular-season championship. The ninth-ranked Hurricanes enter this week’s ACC tournament as the No. 1 seed and looking to add another crown to their trophy case.

To do that they’re going to have to capture their first tournament title in the home state of No. 2 Duke — the second-seeded Blue Devils have won 10 of the past 14 ACC tournament titles.

The tournament opens Thursday in the Greensboro Coliseum, starting with eighth-seeded Boston College and ninth-seeded Georgia Tech. The top four seeds all earned byes into Friday’s quarterfinals.

The Hurricanes (24-6, 15-3) were picked to finish fifth in the preseason, but they won their first 13 league games and reached No. 2 nationally. They stumbled late but still finished a game ahead of the second-ranked Blue Devils (27-4, 14-4) for the outright title and the tournament’s top seed.

The Hurricanes are trying to become only the third team from outside the state of North Carolina to win the tournament in 20 years, joining Maryland in 2004 and Florida State last year.

Miami has reached the semifinals only once before, as a No. 12 seed after a pair of upsets before falling in a close game to top-seeded Duke here in 2010.

“There has been a lot of adversity, going from last in the ACC to a team with a lot of expectations and not really living up to them, and then this season people not thinking we were as good as we turned out to be,” senior Julian Gamble said.

“We still have work to do. We’re perfectionists. We want to play our absolute best basketball and we don’t want to make mental mistakes, especially going into these tournaments.”

The Blue Devils are still working to integrate senior forward Ryan Kelly back into the lineup after he was out for two months with a foot injury.

Kelly returned with a career-high 36 points in a home win against Miami on March 2, and Duke is 18-0 with him this year as opposed to 9-4 without him.

“We’re getting the feel back, but he was out two months, so it’s not going to just happen overnight,” point guard Quinn Cook said. “We’re getting the feel back. Practices have been great just with him. We’re getting back to where we were before he got hurt. We still got a long ways to go but we’re just taking baby steps to where we need to be.”

For third-seeded North Carolina, the challenge is to prevent last weekend’s ugly loss to the rival Blue Devils from lingering into this weekend.

The Tar Heels had won six straight with a four-guard lineup to rebuild some confidence. But Duke ran out to a 14-0 lead in Saturday’s rivalry game and never looked back to drain some of UNC’s momentum.

“I don’t think you can let one game crush you and lead to another one and another one and another one,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “I think that does happen with some teams who struggle quite a bit, but we had been playing pretty well, so hopefully we’ll handle it that way.”

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