Find the Hurricanes' run to the top of the basketball polls hard to believe?
You’re not alone.
“I never really thought that Miami could be a top 10 program,” center Reggie Johnson freely admitted.
“It’s so weird to hear them talking about us on Sports Center,” forward Kenny Kadji tweeted.
Miami’s meteoric rise has been a pleasant surprise in South Florida. It’s captured the attention of the national college basketball landscape on the eve of March Madness.
And the story just keeps gathering steam.
With a narrow 2-point win over Clemson Sunday, UM is 21-3 so far this season, with an unblemished record in one of the traditional powerhouse conferences of college hoops – the ACC. Miami has rolled through its conference schedule, sporting an 12-0 record and 13 straight wins. No ACC team not named North Carolina or Duke has done that in more than 30 years.
Sophomore sensation Shane Larkin is a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award, named after the NBA Hall of Famer and given to the best point guard in the NCAA. The catalyst of the team, Larkin leads UM in points, minutes, field goals, assists, 3-pointers and steals.
The Canes are also ranked number 2 in the latest Associated Press poll.That’s the highest in school history. They aren’t just winning games, they are steamrolling teams.
No team has beaten UNC and Duke by 25 points or more in the same season. Ever. Until now. Miami embarrassed the previously top-ranked Blue Devils by 27 last month in Coral Gables, which prompted a storm on the court by students and fans. The Canes followed that up with a 24-point win over defending ACC Champion Florida State. The Tar Heels felt the brunt next – blown out by 26 at the Bank United Center. UM is 5-0 against UNC, Duke and FSU.
Miami is for real.
“I would love to believe we’re the best team in the country. We have everything a team needs to be successful,” senior Julian Gamble said confidently. “We’re very experienced and we have a lot of seniors and Coach L definitely keeps us grounded.”
Coach L is Jim Larranaga. The 63-year-old Bronx native is in his 2nd year in Coral Gables, coming over from George Mason University after 14 seasons, leading the Patriots to the Final Four in 2006.
Larranaga always wanted to coach in the ACC. He’s making the most of it, turning around a dormant program quickly.
Larkin is his recruit. Son of baseball Hall of Famer Barry Larkin, he’s the only regular player brought in under Larranaga’s watch. The UM head coach showing conviction when many other schools passed because of Larkin’s lack of size.
Besides the success in the standings, Miami and Larranaga are reaping success in the stands. Three of the last four home games have been in front of capacity crowds. Attendance is up nearly 1,000 a game. The last time UM sold-out two straight games? Never. Until this season.
While his players are enjoying the ride, Larranaga is less surprised.
“Carolina and Duke have this every year,” he deadpanned.
But this season, there’s a new kid on the block. The Hurricanes went from unranked just five weeks ago, to arguably the best team in the country. Miami has only Indiana and Duke – the team they embarrassed – ahead of them. That’s not bad for a team that lost to relative lightweights St. Leo in the preseason and Florida Gulf Coast in the second game of the regular season.
“Being at the top of it now, it’s kind of a surreal feeling,” said Gamble. "It’s hard to describe but at the same time, we really worked for this."
“We’re just taking it all in, just moving on up,” senior guard Durand Scott adds. "I think it’s giving us more confidence and bringing the team together even more because we’re realizing the team we can be. Right now we’re clicking.”
Clicking is an understatement. In this week’s AP poll, Miami received 20 first-place votes. That’s 20 more than ever before.
“The votes are cool but we still have work to do,” Johnson says matter of factly. That doesn’t mean the big fella isn’t enjoying this run. And why not? He’s in his 5th year and knows the program’s struggles as well as anyone.
“For me, it’s been crazy. Just walking around, at the mall, people are coming up to me, ‘hey, I’m proud of you guys, keep it up,’ and that’s never happened. I’ve been here four years and never really had that kind of recognition. That’s something very meaningful to me.”
Scott echoed that sentiment. "There hasn’t been a day when someone hasn’t noticed who I was and just congratulated me. This is what we wanted to play basketball for, so why not live the dream?”
It isn’t just the college basketball world that’s catching on to what’s happening in the Gables.
A showtime alley-oop of the backboard from Larkin to Kadji against North Carolina last week earned a standing ovation from two recognizable faces.
LeBron James and Dwyane Wade of the NBA champion Miami Heat are on the Canes bandwagon.
“I tweeted [LeBron] after the game and told him he’s welcome any time,” Larkin said.
The Heat returned the favor, welcoming Larranaga to the Lakers game at AmericanAirlines Arena where he made a cameo on the jumbotron. He didn’t hesitate, throwing up the ‘U’ hand signal and winning over the crowd.
“That’s very nice. It’s heartwarming to me. It made my wife feel really good. I was a little surprised as to how many people came up to me and said something,” Larranaga says before joking, “But I went to Publix and nobody knew me.”
Yet. Now the Canes have a target on their back. They are the hunted. Ahead lies the ACC Tournament, where Miami is all but assured a top seed. Then it’s the Big Dance.
“We probably have to actually play harder now because we have that number 3 ranking. We’re going to get everybody’s best shot,” Larkin said.
"These guys are hungry and yet they remain very, very humble,” Larranaga adds. “They understand that this really is a once in a lifetime experience.”
“He reminds us often that nobody wins the race at halftime. We have a lot more games to play,” said Gamble.
More games mean more history, bigger stages and perhaps even a shift of identity at the U.
“I think now with how we’re playing and Coach L’s experience and what we’re doing right now, people are going to start taking notice,” Larkin said. “Hopefully we can bring in the top recruits and we can just keep building until eventually they can say it’s a basketball town."