The University of Miami plays at North Carolina Thursday night trying to do something no Hurricanes basketball team has been been able to do since joining the Atlantic Coast Conference for the 2004-05 season.
Get off to a 2-0 start in conference play.
The last time the Hurricanes won the first two games on their conference schedule was in 1998-99, when they were in the Big East.
Their 62-49 win at Georgia Tech last weekend marked just the third time since they joined the ACC that they have won their league opener, the last in the 2007-08 campaign. The Yellow Jackets have been their victims all three times.
A big key in last Saturday afternoon’s victory was Rion Brown’s play off the bench. The junior guard, the son of former Tech great Tico Brown, scored a career-high 22 points, making four of six 3-point tries (9-of-11 overall) as the Hurricanes improved to 10-3 overall.
Brown’s play was a good sign for the ‘Canes. Coach Jim Larranaga said his bench will be a “huge key” and Brown will be a “huge key to the bench” for the remainder of the season but especially so with center Reggie Johnson sidelined with a broken thumb for the next few weeks at least.
Brown provided some quality minutes earlier in the season in relief of Trey McKinney, Durand Scott, and Shane Larkin, but his previous season scoring high was 10 points back in the opener against Stetson.
“So having Rion score is an added boost, especially since we are without Reggie Johnson,” Larranaga said. “That’s 12 points and 10 rebounds a game we don’t have, and we need a number of guys to make up for that.”
Brown can be a big boost when it comes to scoring, but he’s not likely to help pick up much of the slack on the boards in Johnson’s absence. His career and season high in rebounds for a game is seven, which is respectable for a guard, but his average is under two a game.
“We’ve been trying to improve our rebounding ever since the start of the season,” said Larranaga, whose team has been outrebounded five times in 13 games. “Last year we weren’t as strong a rebounding team as needed to be.
“We’ve improved, but we still have a lot of work to do in that area. Now with Reggie out the other players realize Reggie’s not there to get us a rebound so maybe I can get us some more.”
That’s going to demand more of starters Kenny Kadji, who is 6-11 but likes to play on the perimeter, and 6-10 Julian Gamble along with 7-0 Tonye Jekiri and 6-10 Raphael Akejiori off the bench.
“Those are the four biggest guys on our team,” Larranaga said “and they are nearest to the basket when a shot goes up.”
The nationally televised (ESPN) game at North Carolina will be the first of two meetings between the two teams in the regular season with the rematch Feb. 9 in Coral Gables.
With the ACC moving to an 18-game conference schedule, the only teams the Hurricanes play once are Maryland (home), North Carolina State (road), Virginia (home), and Wake Forest (road).
The conference had played a 16-game league schedule since the 1991-92 season and a 14-game card for the 12 seasons before that.
“By adding two games, you add a home-and-an-away against a top-level opponent,” Larranaga said. “We’re going to play Duke twice this year. So it makes it more challenging.
“I think for the players, I think they like it because they like playing good teams. For the fans, they like it because we have more quality teams coming to the BankUnited Center.
“For the coach, it just makes your job more difficult.”