ATLANTA — Miami star Jack McClinton moved smoothly on the Georgia Dome court Wednesday morning, but then trading a cumbersome knee brace for a sleeve will help your mobility.
"It feels a lot better," he said of the left knee sprain that hampered him the last three regular-season games. "It's not 100 percent, but it's definitely a lot better."
Make no mistake: Miami desperately needs him at his unencumbered best today.
The No. 9-seeded Hurricanes (18-11, 7-9) open the ACC tournament at noon against eighth seed Virginia Tech (17-13, 7-9) in a game that will keep the winner in the hunt for an NCAA Tournament bid and will likely seal a spot in the NIT for the loser.
"We have to get it," McClinton said.
"We've been able to win two out of three with Jack not being himself, but we don't need Jack not being himself," Miami coach Frank Haith said of McClinton, who hadn't even practiced until Tuesday. "We need Jack being himself."
McClinton, a senior guard and a first-team All-ACC pick for the second straight season, is averaging 19.7 points — third in the conference behind North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough and Florida State's Toney Douglas — and is hitting a league-best 46.4 percent from 3-point range.
But he has averaged 16 points and hit just 6 of 18 3-pointers (33.3 percent) in the games since he injured his knee. That in part explains the Hurricanes' disappointing loss at Georgia Tech on March 4 and why, like last year, they're in a must-win game to open the ACC tournament.
Miami beat North Carolina State last year to improve to 22-9 and lock up an NCAA at-large. The 'Canes lost in the ACC quarterfinals to Virginia Tech, which had to win if it hoped for an NCAA bid. (Despite that win and a last-second loss to North Carolina, the Hokies were left out.)
"Both teams are playing to stay alive. When you're in that situation, I think you'll see tremendous intensity, tremendous energy and, hopefully, good basketball," Hokies coach Seth Greenberg said.
For his team, Job 1 is slowing McClinton. Tech did that in the teams' lone meeting this season, Jan. 25 at Miami. McClinton scored 20 but was 6-of-21 shooting (4-of-12 from 3-point range) in an 88-83 overtime loss.
"He's just such a special player," Greenberg said of McClinton. "He might be the best clutch shooter in the league this past year."
Aside from his own shots, he makes it a bit easier for his teammates to get good shots and, perhaps more important, fuels their confidence.
"When he's emotional, when he's hitting shots and getting into it, the whole team plays at a new level," Miami senior forward Jimmy Graham said.
"Brian Asbury and James Dews and Lance Hurdle, all those guys are playing better," added Haith of the supporting cast. "Now we've got to get Jack back to his form. … If that'll happen this tournament, we can make some noise."
Brian Landman can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3347.