One morning last October, University of Miami basketball coach Jim Larranaga heard that the board of trustees was meeting a few hundred feet from his office, in the Hurricane 100 room at the BankUnited Center. He decided to drop in for an impromptu visit.
I know everybody pays very close attention to the football program because its well deserved, but I went into that board of trustees meeting and said, Im the basketball coach, I dont know if you guys know that or not, Larranaga recalled Monday. I told them, Were going to have perhaps the best season in school history if everybody can stay healthy. And I hope you guys will follow the team, support the team, come out and watch the games, because I think this could be a very special year.
It turns out the coachs prediction was correct.
The Hurricanes (23-5, 14-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) are poised to clinch the leagues regular-season title outright with a home win Wednesday against Georgia Tech or Saturday against Clemson. UM is 13-0 at home and has won its seven ACC home games by an average of 18.4 points.
He said his staff felt the same way. It was the players who had to be convinced. As the season wore on, and they collected big win after big win, they started to believe.
After the Michigan State win, they were headed in right direction, Larranaga said. When we won at [North] Carolina, I could see everything changed. They really believed that, If were good enough to win at Chapel Hill, we should be good enough to win anywhere. And when we beat Duke at home and Florida State at home by substantial margins, the confidence rose geometrically.
Coming off a thrilling, emotionally draining 79-76 loss at No. 3 Duke on Saturday, the sixth-ranked Hurricanes intend to recharge their collective batteries for the March Madness that lies ahead.
They are favored to beat the Yellow Jackets (15-13, 5-11), whom they defeated 62-49 in Atlanta on Jan. 5. In that game, junior guard Rion Brown came off the bench to score a career-high 22 for Miami. He was 9 of 11 from the field and had six three-pointers. The game was special to Brown because his father, Tico, starred at Georgia Tech in the late 1970s.
We have two more games, and we can clinch the ACC title, so were going to do whatever it takes, Brown said. Georgia Tech has been playing really well the last few games, and we have the target on our backs, so we definitely expect them to be at their best.
Larranaga was pleased with how his team played at Duke, nearly winning despite the hostile environment and a career-best 36 points from the Blue Devils Ryan Kelly.
It was a very entertaining game for the fans, Larranaga said. I just thought we needed to defend a little better.
He started Reggie Johnson at center against Duke instead of Julian Gamble, who had started since Johnsons injury in December.
Larranaga explained that Its the time of year youre a little worn down, and Gamble had carried most of the load for months, so he wanted to give Johnson more minutes.
Although Johnson went 0 for 5 against Duke, the coach was leaning toward starting him against Georgia Tech. He said it would depend on how he practiced.
Were playing well, but I think we can play better, and that will be my message to the team. Were not done yet.