The higher the University of Miami men’s basketball team ascends in the national rankings, the higher the risk of ego inflation.
But Monday, when the Hurricanes rose to No. 2, there was scant time to bask in the mirror as the players prepared to defend their reputation and undefeated Atlantic Coast Conference record during the quick turnaround between a tortuous victory at Clemson on Sunday and another potential streak-ender at 9 p.m. Tuesday against Virginia at BankUnited Center.
“We’ve heard a couple rumblings that it’s getting to our heads and we’re kind of being a little arrogant and cocky, but I don’t think that’s our approach at all,” senior forward Julian Gamble said. “We’re a very humble group. Especially with Coach L — he won’t let us get big heads, and we know we have a lot of work left to do.”
Coach Jim Larranaga’s tone and demeanor have not changed as UM hits unprecedented heights in his second season in Coral Gables. So when he referred to a “wild week” of two rocky road wins at Florida State and Clemson he sounded as composed as ever.
Would eking one out in the final minute by the ugly score of 45-43 inside Clemson’s unnerving Littlejohn Coliseum serve his players’ psyches well, knowing they can survive even on a horrid 34.6 percent shooting night, with a season-low 18 first-half points and just three points on 1-of-8 shooting from Durand Scott?
“I don’t put much stock in that,” Larranaga said, drawing on his experience as coach of George Mason during the 2001 postseason. “We beat [UNC] Wilmington 35-33 in the [Colonial Athletic Association] tournament, then scored 80 against Maryland in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. This year against N.C. State we shot 3 for 21 from three-point range, then the next week against North Carolina we were 15 for 26.
“I tell my team almost daily that every game, every opponent is different. I just think college basketball is all about that particular night.”
Larranaga is preaching a live-in-the-moment perspective, and it is working. UM (21-3, 12-0) has won 13 consecutive games, became the first team to beat both Duke and UNC by at least 25 points in the same season, rocketed from unranked to No. 2 (behind Indiana) in five weeks and is first in the ACC with six games to go.
But Virginia (18-7, 8-4), led by Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell, will pose a defensive challenge not unlike the one UM faced at Clemson. The Cavaliers will try to neutralize UM’s size disadvantage with a variety of traps. Coach Tony Bennett is wary of matchup problems containing Shane Larkin’s “quickness and completeness” and Scott’s “ability to probe and score,” he said.
“We really need to tighten the screws,” Bennett said. “We need to come up with a special performance defensively. We need to be so diligent against Miami.”
Gamble, elder statesman as a sixth-year senior on a team with six seniors, said he has noticed an uptick in celebrity status on campus — students ask to take photos of him — even though he’s in graduate school and takes most of his classes at night.
The flip side: “We have a huge target on our backs, and there’s so much parity in this league — you see the Duke-Maryland game as an example of that,” he said, referring to the Maryland upset that displaced the Blue Devils at No. 2.
Larranaga wants his players to savor the exposure — in the moment.
“The attention we got in 2006 started on March 17,” he said of George Mason’s magical run to the Final Four when he was coach. “The attention this team is getting started on Jan. 23 [with the upset of then-No. 1 Duke]. The kind of attention we get now is the kind North Carolina and Duke get every year, every game! When you get it you can’t shy away from it. You have to enjoy it.”
UM is 9-5 all-time against Virginia and lost the most recent meeting, 52-51, on Jan. 7, 2012, in Larranaga’s first ACC game as a head coach.
Larranaga has a nostalgic attachment to Virginia. After working under coach Terry Holland at Davidson, Holland hired him as a Cavalier assistant in 1979, and Larranaga was part of Virginia’s banner seasons with Ralph Sampson at center.
“Coach Holland said, ‘You’ll love it, the ACC is the best,’ ” Larranaga said.
Thirty-four years later, Larranaga’s UM team is best in the ACC.