'Canes adjusting to ACC play without Johnson

How Miami's forwards step up could very well determine the Hurricanes' ACC fate.

CORAL GABLES, Fla. — The Miami Hurricanes prepared for the Atlantic Coast Conference schedule knowing they needed to rebound in a couple of ways.

They needed to bounce back from a disappointing 1-2 Hawaii trip on which center Reggie Johnson was sidelined with a fractured thumb.

And in Johnson’s absence, the 'Canes focused on crashing the boards.

“When you have a guy like Reggie Johnson, one of the best rebounders in the country, you expect him to get every rebound, so you don’t have to worry about it that much,” senior forward Kenny Kadji said. “But now you have to be aware to go get it.”

Miami (10-3, 1-0) will visit North Carolina (10-4, 0-1) on Thursday night, when the 'Canes will try to go 2-0 in the ACC for the first time since joining the league in 2004-05.

The Hurricanes are hoping ACC success follows a tough nonconference schedule. Miami’s nonconference strength of schedule and its Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) both are in or near the top five nationally.

There was a shocking early-season loss at Florida Gulf Coast, but then victories came against Michigan State and at Massachusetts. The 'Canes eyed a Diamond Head Classic title when they departed Miami on Dec. 20.

Before the tournament began, however, Johnson fractured his thumb when going for a rebound in practice. He sat while the 'Canes beat Hawaii and lost to Arizona and Indiana State (in overtime).

The Hurricanes returned to defeat La Salle on Jan. 2 before opening the ACC slate with a victory Saturday at Georgia Tech. Guard Rion Brown supplied much-needed bench scoring with a career-high 22 points against the Yellow Jackets.

“Your nonconference schedule should prepare you for your league games, and your performance in the nonconference should give you the experience you need to play well,” Miami coach Jim Larranaga said. “But conference play is different. The teams are much more familiar with each other. You’re playing teams, for the most part, home and away.

"The crowds are much more enthusiastic. They’re larger, and there’s more excitement in the arena. And a lot of them are on national television.”

This year, a lot of them are expected to be without Johnson.

Miami announced on Dec. 30 that Johnson would be sidelined 6-to-8 weeks with a fractured thumb. Asked Tuesday if the timeline was still the same, Larranaga said, “I have no idea.”

No idea? The more likely scenario is the coach wants to wait and see how the thumb progresses. Playing while wearing a cast was not an option for Johnson at the outset because of concerns the thumb would not heal properly.

Until Johnson returns, the Hurricanes will try to get by without his averages of 12.6 points, 10.1 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game.

Offensively, Johnson often demands double-teams that open up the perimeter. Larranaga expects that to happen less without the senior.

On defense, the 6-foot-10, 290-pound center forms a mountain in the middle against driving opponents.

“He takes up a lot of the paint,” said senior guard Durand Scott, who leads the team with 14.7 points-per-game average. “He’s been blocking the ball well, rebounding real well, and he’s definitely a scorer on the offensive end. He’s a great big portion of our team that’s missing right now. We definitely need that back.”

Johnson’s rebounding ability is missed at both ends. The 'Canes are trying a rebounding-by-committee approach led by 6-11 Kadji, 6-10 senior Julian Gamble, 6-10 junior Raphael Akpejiori and 7-foot freshman Tonye Jekiri.

“We all have to rebound and play well inside,” Kadji said. “It’s going to help us when Reggie comes back. A guy like Julian will go back to the bench, but he’ll have more confidence.”

Can anyone replicate Johnson’s mass in the middle?

“We try,” Kadji said with a smile, “but me and Julian have to combine for that.”

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