A year ago at this time, the University of Miami men’s basketball team was just figuring out its new coach, Jim Larranaga.
The hyper-energetic New Yorker with his motivational quotes, professorial style and complex scramble man-to-man defense took some getting used to after years under Frank Haith, a more mellow Southern big brother figure who preferred playing zone.
Larranaga had to get to know the players he inherited, too.
He learned that although Kenny Kadji is 6-11, he is more comfortable facing the basket than backing up to it. In fact, Kadji was asked to drop 20 pounds this off-season — from 262 lbs. to 242 — because he will be asked to run more and to guard 6-7 and 6-8 forwards on the wings.
He learned how to motivate 292-pound Reggie Johnson and 176-pound Shane Larkin. He learned how to best utilize guards Trey McKinney Jones and Rion Brown. He realized that Durand Scott is a fierce competitor. And he discovered during the past few months that 6-10 senior Julian Gamble, finally healthy, is a heady tough-nosed rebounder who should contribute more than Larranaga initially thought.
Six seniors are back from the Hurricanes team that finished 20-13 last year, fourth in the Atlantic Coast Conference (9-7). That team reached the second round of the NIT, which left the players and coaches wanting more.
“Tournament and make noise,’’ Johnson replied, when asked his preseason goals. “I definitely want to make noise in the NCAA Tournament, no ifs, ands or buts. Forget the NIT. Forget all that. I’m telling you right now. Sorry if I sound cocky…Some of you probably think, ‘Oh, he’s crazy,’ but I’m telling you right now what’s going to be this coming season.’’
Johnson predicted the Canes would finish top three in the ACC.
UM cracked the national Top 25 in a few preseason magazine polls and received eight votes in the AP poll. The addition of 7-foot freshman Tonye Jekiri of Hialeah’s Champagnat Catholic School should help, as he is quick for a big man and a good shot blocker.
Larranaga said this year’s team has a much better grasp of his system after a year of instruction. He no longer feels he has to win his players over. They are on board and ready to follow his plan.
“We should be able to do things in November and December that we couldn’t even think about doing at any time last year,’’ Larranaga said. “You’ll see us pressing more, running more.’’
The Canes had a pair of signature wins last season — at Duke and at home against Florida State. They are hoping for more this year.
Larkin vowed to be more aggressive offensively than he was as a freshman. He won’t be as deferential as he was a year ago.
“Hopefully we can build on what we started last year and make the NCAA Tournament this year,’’ Larkin said. “I’ll look to break out a little more. I don’t feel we get the respect we deserve. Winning at Duke shows what we can do, but we need to do more of that.’’
“I’m definitely hungry after having to sit out the entire season and seeing ups and downs, seeing adversity,’’ Gamble said. “This is my last chance, the last shot for half our team to go out and make history, make the Tournament. We haven’t been since 2008, my freshman year.
“We’re not leaving anything to chance. We’re going to do everything in our power to make the tournament. There’s no excuse with the amount of experience and talent we have. We can’t blame it on the coaching staff because they’re doing everything they can to help us. We are an NCAA Tournament team and we just have to go out and show it. We’ve talked about it long enough.’’
The Hurricanes will play their first exhibition at BankUnited Center on Friday at 7 p.m. against St. Leo.