The University of Miami’s senior citizens are defying the one-and-done trend that has turned college basketball into a game dominated by 18-somethings.
The Hurricanes are winning with six seasoned players, including Julian Gamble and Reggie Johnson, both 23, and Kenny Kadji, who turns 25 in May.
Guile, poise and cohesion have been the hallmarks during a seamless run to the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference, which UM extended to 9-0 by teaching Boston College a 72-50 lesson on Tuesday in Coral Gables.
It was a case of age before beauty in the 27-point wipeout of Duke.
Then, sturdy nerves prevailed in a last-second defeat of North Carolina State in Raleigh.
UM sprightly sidestepped the trap door against 10-12 BC by maintaining concentration against a lesser opponent.
Again, UM confirmed it deserves the No. 8 ranking, tying the school’s highest spot in the AP poll from March 1, 1960, when Dick Hickox was the star.
It’s been a long time, as Gamble can attest. The senior, granted a sixth year of eligibility after he tore up a knee last season, is proof that good things come to those who wait.
“I was a 17-year-old kid when I got here, and now I’m a mature man,” Gamble said. “We’ve been there, done that. There’s a lot of nonverbal communication because we know each others’ tendencies so well.”
With large numbers of underclassmen declaring for the NBA Draft eight months after matriculating, the sport is experiencing turnover worse than that of a bone factory that employs dogs.
In 2012, 49 underclassmen declared for the NBA Draft. Only one of the first 10 picks played four years in college (Damian Lillard of Weber State), and the top three picks were freshmen.
UM is enjoying the fruits of stability while the glamour programs are forced to start over. Kentucky won the 2012 national title, then said goodbye to Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and three others. North Carolina lost four stars, including Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall. Duke bid farewell to guard Austin Rivers one year after Kyrie Irving left early. Syracuse, Ohio State and Connecticut hardly got to know key players during their brief layovers in college.
While no coach would trade Davis or Jared Sullinger or Fab Melo for a recruit who guarantees he will stay put for four years, and the top teams will always capitalize on their flowing faucets of talent, UM is demonstrating that there is more than one way to be successful. Butler also relied on experience to get to the Final Four twice as a mid-major. Gonzaga is another example. And George Mason, of course — the ultimate underdog team.
Banking on seniors
UM coach Jim Larranaga, himself no spring chicken at age 63, relied on three seniors to lead 11th seed George Mason to upsets of Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut en route to the 2006 NCAA Final Four.
“The confidence they have in each other — you don’t get that overnight,” Larranaga said of the six seniors and four juniors on his 13-man roster.
Experience is paying off. During the rout of Duke, UM never paused to pinch itself.
“This team is old,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, challenged with another rebuilding project. “Really old and really good.”
It shows in crucial moments, like when Johnson tipped in the game winner with 0.8 seconds left at North Carolina State. Being in the right place at the right time isn’t usually luck. It’s anticipation.
To get ready for Virginia Tech, senior Garrius Adams impersonated Eric Greene when the scout team played the starters in practice.
“Our preparation was so good, nothing surprised our guys,” Larranaga said.
Senior Durand Scott has certainly seen it all, and is passing along his knowledge to Shane Larkin, who will need it next season when UM reverts to a young squad.
Gamble said Larranaga will keep UM focused as pressure increases for UM come ACC tournament and March Madness time.
“Sometimes we get a little too tense, but his sense of calm goes through the team,” Gamble said. “At N.C. State, he kept telling us to just calm down, we had time. He can be calm and intense at the same time. He’s been around game situations so long he knows what to expect.”
That sort of savvy should serve UM well as it pursues only its second NCAA appearance in nine years. Already, UM has defeated three top-20 teams. For the first time in school history, UM conquered Tobacco Road in one season, beating UNC, Duke and N.C. State. The Tar Heels visit here Saturday.
Should be a sellout of the BankUnited Center, but, then, Tuesday’s game should have been a sellout, too. Instead, 5,149 fans showed up. Not bad for UM, which is headed into new college hoops territory, but too many people are missing out on this once-in-a-lifetime group.
Better catch them now before they are gone.