The University of Miami basketball team headed to Washington for the Sweet 16 without its biggest player. Reggie Johnson, a 6-10, 300-pound senior center, sustained a knee injury during the Illinois game Sunday and stayed behind.
UM released a statement saying Johnson sustained a “lower extremity injury” against Illinois and his return is uncertain. According to two sources, he underwent arthroscopic surgery Tuesday, but the school did not confirm that.
“Reggie injured himself in the Illinois game, had it evaluated on Monday, went to the doctors [Tuesday] and he will not be with us for the trip,” UM coach Jim Larrañaga said by phone from the team bus as it headed to the airport.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with Reggie, and we’re hoping he can recover from this quickly. Our players are preparing to play Marquette, and we have to play with the players we have. We’ve had to deal with these issues before, and our guys have handled it with class.”
Larrañaga said he had not spoken with Johnson since Monday night.
“We’re all just going to have to step up,” sixth-year senior forward Julian Gamble said. “Hopefully, we get him back for the Final Four.”
Second-seeded UM faces No. 3 seed Marquette on Thursday night. The news was the latest setback for Johnson, who has struggled since breaking his thumb just before Christmas at the holiday tournament in Hawaii. He was averaging a double-double — 12.6 points and 10.1 rebounds — at the time of his injury. He missed eight games before returning for UM’s 90-63 win against Duke on Jan. 23.
Since then, he has played well in a few games, most notably at North Carolina State, where he had 15 points, nine rebounds and the game-winning tip-in.
But the past month, he was prone to turnovers, had trouble scoring and seemed to lose his confidence. He played only three minutes in the ACC tournament championship win against North Carolina in Greensboro, N.C., and sat the entire second half.
In his last 12 games since scoring 14 points against Florida State, Johnson is averaging 2.8 points, 3.8 rebounds and shooting 28.9 percent from the field (13 of 45) in 13.3 minutes per game.
Larrañaga, asked several times over the past month about Johnson’s slump, said the media was making too much of it, and that Johnson’s lack of playing time had more to do with Gamble earning minutes and matchup situations.
“I’ve said this before and I know you guys make a lot more of it than we do, but we’ve had great performances from our big guys,” Larrañaga said when asked about Johnson early Tuesday afternoon. “They combine to do what we need done.”
Kenny Kadji said of Johnson last week: “Every time a player struggles a little bit, there’s a lack of confidence. He’s a little bit down, but he’s not just shutting down. He’s doing everything he can to get back to his level.”
Johnson showed signs of his old self in the Canes’ NCAA Tournament opener against Pacific. He had 10 rebounds and seven points in 24 minutes. Afterward, he said he “felt like crying” when he stepped on the court because it had been a lifelong dream to play in the tournament.
“I was saying to Durand [Scott], we waited four years to play in this tournament, and we finally got our first win,” Johnson said. “That’s my first [NCAA] Tournament win, and we have a chance to do something special on a national stage.”
For now, they’ll have to do it without him.
Larrañaga on dance
Larrañaga explained Tuesday how he came to do his Muhammad Ali Shuffle after the win over Illinois.
“During the game, it became a battle of wills and I thought the tougher team physically, mentally and emotionally was going to win. So, we asked the players to fight, fight harder, fight for every loose ball. Fight for every rebound, basket. … It was like a heavyweight boxing match, and as we walked to the locker room, I was trying to think what to say to them and all I could think of was fighting, and the greatest fighter of all time was Muhammad Ali. I thought to myself, I don’t even know if these kids know who Muhammad Ali is … Thought about doing a Mike Tyson reference, but I just said, ‘I asked you guys to be fighters, and you guys are like Muhammad Ali. And then I just did the shuffle. I don’t know why.”
Before the game, Larrañaga, in his suit and tie, dived on the ground to demonstrate how he wanted his team to dive for loose balls.
“I’m getting a little worried about Coach L,” Kadji joked. “He’s going to have to get treatment.”
When a reporter started a question by mentioning that Larrañaga is 63 years old, he smiled and chimed in: “Why does everybody make a big deal of that? I have yet to read Mike Krzyzewski’s 66. … Roy Williams is 62. Leonard Hamilton’s in his 60s (64), He’s older than me. Not a single article that I’ve read about any of those guys referred to their age. And when we played Pacific, I had to ask Bob Thomason. … I looked throughout his bio, they never once mentioned his age.”
Larrañaga was sad to hear news of the firings of Minnesota coach Tubby Smith and UCLA coach Ben Howland.
“It’s a very tough profession,” he said. “For me, it’s very sad because I know those two guys. I consider them good friends of mine, and I consider them not good coaches but great coaches, guys who have achieved a lot throughout the course of their careers. I’m assuming a very smart athletic director will hire each of those guys, and they’ll be back coaching at the highest level next year.”