In My Opinion

Linda Robertson: Biggest player goes missing for Miami Hurricanes

Reggie Johnson would have liked to revel in a glorious occasion Wednesday night. But he spent too much of the game on the bench, towel on thighs, elbows on knees, chin in hands.

When the Hurricanes had a chance to clinch the University of Miami’s first ACC regular season title, Johnson was not inserted.

When Georgia Tech’s Marcus Georges-Hunt drove to the basket as time ran out, Johnson was not imposing his mass to alter the shot or block the tip-in that secured the 71-69 upset for the lowly Yellow Jackets and silenced fans primed to celebrate history.

Johnson had a faraway look in his eyes. The senior center has been a big, big, big part of UM’s progression to No. 6 in the nation. What remains to be seen is whether he will be a big part of UM’s upcoming ACC and NCAA Tournament runs. He is 300 pounds of unrealized potential. March would be the perfect time to tap it.

He played 15 minutes, scored two points on four shots, grabbed a single rebound, and missed his lone free throw.

The loss followed UM’s loss at Duke, where Johnson played 17 minutes and scored zero points, made five rebounds and failed to get to the line.

Johnson’s presence has been diminishing since he returned from a thumb injury on Jan. 23. He lost his starting role to Julian Gamble. His scoring average has dropped from 11.3 to 8.1. His rebounding average has dropped from 9.5 to 7.5. In the past nine games, he has made just nine free throws.

UM could not survive a herky-jerky performance by the entire team. The score was tied at 69 with 28.7 seconds left due to botched dunks, soft passes, few fast breaks, lousy three-point shooting and that persistent problem of missed free throws. Good for the Canes to purge it out of their system now.

One of Coach Jim Larranaga’s main goals was to get Johnson back in sync. He started Johnson at Duke on Saturday and again Wednesday after 11 non-starts to boost Johnson’s confidence and give Gamble a break from heavy minutes. He will probably do so again Saturday against Clemson, in the last home game for the seniors.

“Reggie needs to play better, he needs to challenge himself, he needs to score more,” Larranaga said. “He had several opportunities around the basket.”

If UM beats Clemson, as it should, Johnson will get his turn snipping the net that will be preserved for posterity in a trophy case, where fans can gaze at it and exclaim, “2013 -- that’s when the college basketball culture changed in Coral Gables.”

To think that Miami, once a wasteland of the sport, is No. 1 in the nation’s premier basketball conference, in a season when it became the first program to beat both Duke and North Carolina by 25-plus points. To think that the basketball team, constantly overshadowed at a football school, will win an ACC title before the football team. It’s surreal.

Yet Johnson’s confidence appears to be low just when UM needs him to be at his height, all 6 feet, 11 inches of it.

The NCAA Tournament is about seedings, matchups, luck. Guard play is critical, but the teams that keep winning rely on their bigs to hit the close-range baskets and wrestle down the rebounds which spell the difference in tight games.

Wednesday’s game was uncomfortably tight – a preview of what happens during March Madness, when underdogs unnerve Great Danes and chaotic finishes are the norm. Larranaga kept Johnson on the bench.

Johnson looked hesitant when he should have been aggressive. Lifting off toward a layup, dwarfing his defender, Johnson curled his shoulder, self-sabotaging his size advantage. The ball bounced off the glass without even brushing the rim.

On another occasion, he couldn’t complete a three-point play. Another time, he wheeled around center Daniel Miller, hopped upward and was called for traveling. Early on, a weak shot of his was rejected. He missed a hook. His power moves were awkward.

When Gamble plays center, UM is energized. Gamble is more active and cantankerous in the paint, and his speed cranks UM’s attack.

Johnson’s numbers have been regressing since his sophomore year. He scored 27 points at Duke last season. He was 0-for-5 last week. He’s had his bright spots, including the game-winning tip-in at N.C. State. He was a perfect five-for-five at Florida State. He scored 19 points and blocked six shots against UMass.

Larranaga needs consistency from him.

Johnson is a hugely popular player and personable guy. Cries of “Come on, Reggie!” and “Move, Reggie!” echoed through BankUnited Center. Fans and teammates want Johnson to throw his weight around.

In March, it’s all about peaking. Johnson has two weeks to hit his peak.

Read more State Colleges stories from the Miami Herald

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