In this me-first college basketball era, when highly touted freshmen expect instant stardom and can’t wait to bolt for the NBA, it is truly rare to find a senior class like the one that will play its final home game for the University of Miami against Wake Forest at 2 p.m. on Saturday.
All six Canes seniors have spent the majority of their college careers as role players. Only Rion Brown, who averages 15.2 points per game, played significant minutes for UM before this season. None of the seniors scored in double figures last season. The other five combined for an average of 4.7 points this season and were thrust into starting roles for the first time since high school.
What they lack in statistics they make up for in character. They became a selfless and resilient bunch as they rode a four-year rollercoaster that included the coaching change from Frank Haith to Jim Larrañaga, the NCAA investigation, the Sweet 16 run last season and this season’s up-and-down 15-15 record (6-11 in the Atlantic Coast Conference).
Along the way, they stood out in the classroom. Donnavan Kirk, a graduate student, was named last week to the ACC All-Academic team, which requires a minimum of a 3.0 grade-point average. Erik Swoope earned that honor as a sophomore. Raphael Akpejiori and Justin Heller were both named to the ACC Academic Honor Roll during their careers.
Larrañaga said that although the group struggled offensively early on and didn’t win as many games as it wanted to, he is proud of all they overcame.
“Rarely do you find a group like this year that come in as freshmen, end up being in support roles, stay in those roles throughout their three years and all of a sudden are thrust into the starting lineup and major roles their senior year,’’ he said. “In all my years, I’ve never had a senior class like this one, go from being the seventh through 12th man to now all of a sudden being one through six. That jump is substantial.”
Garrius Adams went from a medical redshirt season last year to starting every game and averaging 10 points this season. He has had to be versatile, as he was asked to play point guard, shooting guard and small forward. "It took Garrius some time to shake off his rust, but he has been asked to do a lot, playing three different positions, and he has been a great leader for us,'' said Larranaga.
The seniors also had to learn to be leaders, something they never had to do before because they spent three seasons deferring to upperclassmen Durand Scott and Julian Gamble, known for their strong personalities.
“Durand Scott was always the leader around here, and he happened to be one year older, so all three years he was always the leader and now, this year, none of us were really leaders,’’ Heller said. “It was kind of weird. Everybody is used to looking to somebody else, and all of a sudden it was like, ‘Well, we’re the seniors. It has to be us this year.’ ”
Swoope, who has come on strong in recent weeks, said: “We’ve each had our journey and our moments. But we stuck together and stayed positive.’’
For Heller, a walk-on who averaged under one point per game, the personal high point of the season was Jan. 7, when the coaching staff surprised him and offered him a scholarship for his final semester. He finally got to experience the feeling of signing a college scholarship letter.
“This is a year I’ll never forget because getting a scholarship really meant a lot to me,’’ he said. “It was a reward for all the time and effort I put in. I didn’t see it coming. Coach L called me in the office, closed the door, didn’t really say anything, was looking at stuff on his desk; my heart was pounding, I thought I was in trouble, and then he told me the news.”
Kirk was thrilled for Heller, who is the team’s ambassador. “Justin helps us see what we don’t see on the court and helps a lot with recruits. He was so dedicated to this program.”
Brown expects an emotional Saturday.
“I’ve been here for so long, I always feel like I’m coming back the next year, so this is the first time I can really say it’s over,” Brown said.