If there was still any question whether the No.8 University of Miami basketball program has officially arrived, it was answered at around 4 p.m. Saturday in the front row of BankUnited Center.
Heat stars LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and James Jones leaped to their feet and cheered along with the sellout crowd as Hurricanes forward Kenny Kadji threw down a thunderous dunk off a slick backboard assist from Shane Larkin, giving UM a 24-point lead over the North Carolina Tar Heels.
The Canes, playing with a swagger reminiscent of the UM football teams of the 1980s, toyed with the Heels, making their 87-61 victory look like a lopsided playground game.
UM tied a school record with 15 three-pointers, extended its win streak to 11 games and improved its record to 19-3 and 10-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Miami is the only team of the six power conferences with an unbeaten league record and became the first team since the ACC’s inception in 1953 to beat Duke and North Carolina by 25-plus points in the same season.
With losses by No. 1 Indiana, No. 2 Florida, No. 3 Michigan and No. 5 Kansas, the Hurricanes could move into the top 5. No UM team has ever been ranked higher than eighth, and that has happened only twice — now and 53 years ago.
Heck, some TV analysts even suggested UM should get votes for No. 1. Yes, No. 1, as in top dog of college basketball. Read that again slowly. This is really happening. UM could win an ACC basketball title before it wins one in football. Who’d have thunk it?
Nobody is happier for the Canes than Jones, the Heat forward, a UM alum who played from 1999 to 2003.
‘An amazing thing’
“This is a dream realized,” he said. “When I signed here in ’99, they were promising an on-campus arena and I had thoughts and dreams of playing in front of a packed house against Syracuse, UConn, St. John’s. My senior year, I was here for the christening of the building against North Carolina, and got a brief glimpse of what it could be here.
“I’m so glad that as a player for the Miami Heat, I can watch up close how this program is excelling and building a fan base. It’s an amazing thing going on here.”
Larkin, the clever and steady sophomore guard, led the Canes with 18 points and a career-high nine assists. He made 5 of8 three-point attempts. Durand Scott and Kadji had 17 points apiece, and Scott also had six rebounds, five assists and three steals. Rion Brown kicked in 11 points, and Julian Gamble had eight points, four blocks and six rebounds.
UM made 13 of its first 19 three-point attempts, including one at the halftime buzzer by Kadji to give the Canes a 44-27 lead. The orange-clad students chanted: “Larra-naga! Larra-naga!” as the Canes headed to the locker room. UM coach Jim Larranaga is already being mentioned as a national coach of the year candidate.
After the game, Tar Heels coach Roy Williams and his team trudged off the court, beaten by UM for the second time this season. The Canes shot 54 percent, best by any UNC opponent this season.
“They were hitting on all cylinders, and all those clichés that you want to use,” Williams said. “We didn’t have many answers for them. Larkin just dominated the game. He’s really, really good. Miami’s pretty doggone good.
“They guard like crazy. Larkin sets a great standard out front, leads the league in steals. Kadji twice blocked our dunks. Reggie [Johnson] and Gamble give them size inside, the muscle you need to clear space. They’ve got shooters. Scott’s had a heck of a four-year career. They can shoot outside, score inside, get to the free-throw line, guard you without fouling. People talk a lot about their experience and how old they are, but they’re also talented. They have the whole package.”
Larkin conceded that the Hurricanes are having every bit as much fun as it looks.
As for the alley-oop assist off the glass to Kadji, he said: “It was one of those moments where you’re having fun out there, everything’s working for you. We got a steal, Trey [McKinney Jones] passed it to me on the outlet, and Kenny said, ‘Backboard, backboard!’ and I didn’t see anybody behind him, so I just tossed it off the backboard real soft and he just killed it.”
It was particularly exciting to make the move in front of NBA celebrity spectators.
“It’s a great feeling knowing that people at that level actually realize what you’re doing down here,” Larkin said. “Even though they’re on the professional level, they still have enough respect to come watch college kids.”
Larranaga was equally tickled to see the NBA stars enter the building.
“They called early in the week, and we told them, ‘Sorry, it’s sold out,’ ” Larranaga joked. “Then we said, ‘We think we can fit you in.’ ”
Their presence is an invaluable recruiting tool, the coach said, especially at a school that does not have a rich basketball tradition. “When you watch an NBA game, the camera pans the sideline and you see celebrities. And for our recruiting purposes, it gives us a lot of credibility [having NBA players courtside]. We tell recruits we’re a hot ticket in town. Our program’s headed in the right direction. Every little bit helps.”