Reggie Johnson was serious in October when he said the only reason the media ignored his basketball team was because of the name on the front of their jerseys.
The senior forward said that if Miami had “North Carolina or Duke on the front,” they’d be picked to finish atop the ACC.
“We have that kind of team,” he said.
He was right. Miami already owned a victory at UNC and a 27-point win at home over the Blue Devils. On Saturday, the Hurricanes put another notch in their belt by knocking off another traditional ACC program along the almost-religious trail of Tobacco Road when Johnson tipped in a teammate’s missed runner with eight-tenths of a second left to beat then-No. 19 North Carolina State before nearly 20,000 boisterous fans.
Miami didn’t beat Duke or UNC with the tip-in, but NC State’s history is quite rich and its home atmosphere reeks of ACC hoops. This was yet another infusion of ACC DNA into the Miami program’s veins.
“I told our players after the game there was no sense of me even trying to give instructions because no one could hear me, even in timeouts,” Miami coach Jim Larranaga said. “It was almost impossible to talk to the guys and get them to understand what I was thinking.”
The victory moved Miami to 17-3 overall, 8-0 in the ACC and a No. 8 national ranking. It had never been 6-0 in any conference before, so this team is already one for the ages in Coral Gables. But its potential could present a final nesting place somewhere more significant than Miami’s annals. The Hurricanes have national potential.
They are veteran, which everyone not living under a rock already knows. They are talented with at least two future NBA players in senior forward and leading scorer Kenny Kadji and sophomore point guard Shane Larkin, the son of Hall of Fame baseball player Barry Larkin.
Miami has role players who’ve embraced their assignments, a tough New York guard who gives them a needed jagged edge, and a personality whose fundamental skills and deceptive athleticism are as impressive as his smile and ability to add levity to a moment in need.
And running things is a coach who led George Mason to the Final Four in 2006 before mid-majors had become a semi-regular on college hoops’ biggest stage. Larranaga led a team that finished third in the Colonial Athletic Association to wins over Michigan State, North Carolina and top overall seed Connecticut to get to the Final Four before falling to eventual national champion Florida.
Other than UNC’s Roy Williams and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, Larranaga is the only ACC coach to have taken a team to the national semifinals. He knows what he’s doing, and the 63-year-old Bronx native has his team’s respect.
“We’re experienced and have a lot of seniors, so we’re more understanding; we can listen and grasp exactly what he’s telling us to do,” senior guard Durand Scott said. “It’s our second year under Coach Larranaga’s belt, so we just go out there and try to execute to the best of our ability, to exactly what he draws up on the board and tells us. And when you do that the only thing you can do is get great results.”
The Hurricanes just missed out on the NCAA Tournament a year ago, finishing 20-13 overall and 9-7 in the ACC. Had Johnson not missed some time with an injury, it’s likely the Canes would have had the NCAA experience. A victory at Duke was one of their more notable wins.
So this club is hungry, and as mostly seniors, they have a lot to prove and also experience. There’s no next year for most of them. This is their time to shine. Yet, they are simply enjoying the ride. After all, their jerseys do read “Miami” on the front, so they aren’t exactly trying to live up to ghosts of the past.
“No pressure on us,” sixth-year senior center Julian Gamble said. “We’re having as much fun as possible. We know teams are going to gun at us and play their absolute best every night.”
Just like how Miami has gunned at UNC and Duke for so many years. Now the shoes are on the other foot, just like Johnson wanted and pretty much predicted.