It’s must-win mode for the Miami Hurricanes, who have dropped three of their past four after starting the season 12-1 and climbing into the Top 10.

While the latter part of that previous paragraph is true, the first part is false as no one is in must-win mid late January.

Still, there is reason for concern based on a general sloppiness, lethargic nature and inability to close against the likes of Georgia Tech, Clemson and Duke over the past few weeks. The Canes are now 2-3 in conference play and need to get things turned around—starting with Sunday’s match-up at North Carolina State; yet another away game for a road-worn squad.

While almost all of that impressive start came against lesser, non-ACC competition, it’s hard to not point at hectic holiday season travel as a potential culprit for Miami’s recent sluggishness against better foes.

Over a 19-day span starting mid-December, the Canes travel schedule was Miami to Washington D.C. and back, Hawaii and back, holiday travel and back, Pittsburgh and back and Atlanta and back—where the losing ways began at Georgia Tech, with a 64-54 loss.

After jumping out to a 7-3 lead, the Canes went cold offensively as the Yellow Jackets kept chipping away until a 28-28 tie going into the break.

The start of the second half saw Georgia Tech separating. By halfway through the period, the home team had torn off an 18-6 run and Miami was in catch-up mode—pulling to within two on a few occasions, but unraveling. Missed jumpers. Turnovers. Ill-advised three-point attempts.

At the 3:47 mark, a 48-46 game. Two minutes later, the Canes were down 10.

Miami rallied days later at home against Florida State for a much-needed, 80-74 win against a heated rival—carried late by undersized point guard Chris Lykes, who finished with 18 points. Bruce Brown also did his part with a season-high 23-point effort, while Dewan Huell followed with 20 points and eight rebounds.

Six days later at Clemson, Huell was only good for 10, while Brown had a paltry four and Lyles came off the bench for 13. Lonnie Walker and Anthony Lawrence led the Canes with 16 apiece, but it wasn’t enough against a Tigers’ squad who did nothing but rest after a hard fought, dramatic loss at North Carolina State three days prior.

Clemson hit a season-high 12 three-pointers against Miami in that effort; four coming in the final 10 minutes of the contest it what was a 72-63 final.

Against Duke, an imperfect storm of fading down the stretch, as well as immaturity against a mature, level-headed Blue Devils squad. Gary Trent Jr. went off for a career-high 30 points—with several monster three-pointers proving to be a difference-maker in the comeback.

Duke overcame 19 turnovers to Miami’s 11 with a 55.4 field goal percentage to the Canes’ 37.2. The Blue Devils shot 52.4% from beyond-the-arc while Miami was 36%—9-of-25, with several boneheaded attempts late when driving the lane, or working for two would’ve kept things close.

With 7:59 remaining in the game, Miami pulled ahead by 13 courtesy of a Ja’Quan Newton lay-up in a game tied 10 minutes prior. From there, Duke looked like the contender they are, while the Canes played like a squad who felt like the Blue Devils were in the building.

Over those final almost-eight minutes, Miami saw a 13-point lead become an eight-point less—Duke going on a 30-9 run to close out with conviction, while the Canes were left wondering what the hell happened.

The loss felt like full-blown deja vu for those in Durham a year prior when Miami saw an 11-point halftime lead evaporate by way of a 31-4 Blue Devils’ run.

Back on the road to take on a North Carolina State squad sitting at 13-6, coming off a nine-point win over Wake Forest—Miami will have to adjust to the Wolfpack’s full-court pressing defense; something coach Jim Larranaga addressed with team leaders days back in the wake of losing three-of-four.

“Players have to make that transformation,” Larranaga said. “We’re trying to make it as simple as possible.”

Larranaga also mentioned Lykes getting more minutes and encouraging him to knock down more three-balls, as he has in clutch moments this season. Lykes was also quick to challenge his teammates to respond defensively.

“Offense is not the problem,” Lykes said. “I think we just have to do a better job being consistent on defense.”

Even more daunting for the Canes; the fact the Wolfpack are 3-0 at home—with wins over Duke and Clemson.

Sunday’s tip-off in Raleigh is 12:00 p.m. ET.

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