From 1998-2000, Miami went 39-13 in the Big East, earned three consecutive NCAA tournament bids and reached a Sweet 16. Today’s Hurricanes were elementary-school kids then, and suffice to say they are unaccustomed to their new-found prominence.
Miami is undefeated in the ACC, ranked 14th by the Associated Press and certain to reach the NCAAs for the first time in five years.
“The teams that are out in front in any league have a target on their back,” Hurricanes coach Jim Larranaga said. “Duke and North Carolina have done that forever. They knew wherever they would go they were going to have to face a hostile crowd and see the other team’s best effort. We haven’t been in this position before, but we have veteran players.”
Larranaga spoke Wednesday night after his veterans responded with the poise of legitimate contenders in a 73-64 victory at Virginia Tech.
With Robert Brown and Jarell Eddie showing a scoring pulse to complement the relentless Erick Green, the Hokies bolted to a 28-16 lead. But after Shane Larkin’s personal 7-0 run drew the Hurricanes within 32-29 at halftime, it seemed inevitable that Miami’s maturity and superior talent would prevail.
Sure enough, after intermission the Hurricanes shot 50 percent and committed only four turnovers. Larkin, Kenny Kadji and Trey McKinney-Jones combined for 55 points as Miami survived Green’s 30.
Green leads the nation in scoring at 25.5 per game and is shooting a remarkable 49.8 percent despite myriad defensive tactics designed to stop him.
As George Mason’s head coach, Larranaga recruited Green out of Winchester.
“I thought going to Virginia Tech he would have a very nice career,” Larranaga said. “But he’s developed into the leading scorer in the country. That’s a whole another level, when everyone’s attention is on you.
“You’re going to get every defender’s best effort, you’re getting every team’s best defender on the perimeter. It is very, very hard to continue to produce the way he has. It’s a remarkable accomplishment by him.”
Similarly, Miami got Tech’s best effort.
“I thought our guys responded to that well,” Larranaga said. “We didn’t lose our composure, didn’t come unglued. … We didn’t have that emotional lift from the crowd, but we did have that good, steady effort and it increased throughout the game. …
“We had a gut check and we responded. We took a major blow in the first half and we came back at them.”
So here Miami is at 16-3 overall and 7-0 in conference. The Hurricanes lead second-place Virginia and Duke by two games and are the first team other than Duke or North Carolina to open ACC play 7-0 since Virginia and Ralph Sampson in 1981.
Larranaga was an assistant under Terry Holland on that Cavaliers’ squad.
“They just finished better than we did,” Brown said. “They have a really good team led by a really good point guard (Larkin) and a fantastic coach. They just kept running away like good teams do, took the lead and buried us away.”
The Hurricanes were coming off an emotional week in which they dusted then-No. 1 Duke and state rival Florida State, both at home. But Larranaga starts four seniors – McKinney-Jones, Kadji, Durand Scott and Julian Gamble – along with sophomore Larkin. His top reserves are senior Reggie Johnson and junior Rion Brown.
Combine that seasoning with talent and look out.
Gamble and Johnson are imposing inside and teamed for 17 rebounds Wednesday. McKinney-Jones and Scott are dynamic wings, and the 6-11 Kadji (18 points) can score from 20 feet as well as 2.
Larkin, meanwhile, is a jet. He leads the ACC in steals and minutes, and Wednesday he scored 25 points, his most in an ACC game, on an array of drives, pull-ups and spot-up threes.
“He’s the key to that team,” Tech coach James Johnson said. “He’s the head on a snake.”
“He loves giving the ball up,” Larranaga said. “He’ll give the ball to anybody on our team if they’re open. But I think he realized tonight he needed to play a little more aggressively on offense.”
This is Larranaga’s second season at Miami after 14 at George Mason, which he famously guided to the 2006 Final Four. Last season he coached the Hurricanes to a 9-7 ACC finish, their best in eight years of membership.
This season will be better. Miami is bound to stumble, perhaps as early as Saturday at North Carolina State, but is absolutely capable of winning the ACC.
With or without point guard Lorenzo Brown, who rolled his left ankle in Tuesday’s loss at Virginia, the 19th-ranked Wolfpack, 12-0 at home, will be aiming for the Hurricanes.
“We know next time out,” Larranaga said, “it’s going to be the same thing.”
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