Kenny Kadji walked into his English class Monday morning, and his professor and fellow students applauded him for the University of Miami basketball team’s Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship.
Kadji is just shy of 7 feet tall, so he always has been noticed on campus, but these days, the students know him by name and are well aware of the team’s success.
They knew that the Canes earned a No. 2 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, that they had just won the first conference title in school history, and that they’re heading to Austin for their first game Friday against No. 15 seed Pacific at 2:10 p.m. on TNT.
The fan base off campus is growing as well. When the Hurricanes left the confetti-covered Greensboro Coliseum court after their historic victory Sunday afternoon, hundreds of UM fans hung over the tunnel railings to slap high fives with the players, get autographs and photographs.
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Late Sunday night, when the team bus arrived back to the BankUnited Center from the airport, a few hundred students and fans were waiting for the Canes, who enter the NCAA Tournament with a 27-6 record and No. 5 national ranking.
The players honored coach Jim Larranaga by letting him get off the bus first.
“He’s the coach of the year,” Kadji said. “He brought us here. We would have never been here if he wasn’t here. We wanted him to have his moment and share with the fans a little bit before the whole team started getting off the bus.”
Kadji was next off the bus, and he said it’s a moment he won’t ever forget.
“I was the first player off the bus carrying the trophy, and I got smothered,” Kadji said. “Everybody just came, and it was a great feeling.”
The players had Monday off but started to research the University of the Pacific, best known as the alma mater of former NBA player Michael Olowokandi.
Julian Gamble said he did a Google search on the school’s basketball program and found out their coach Bob Thomason is about to retire after 25 years at the school, so his players will be motivated to send him out on a high note.
UM players also are determined to win for their coach, especially after Larranaga told them Sunday night that they were the best team he has ever coached.
“Considering he’s coached for longer than just about everyone in this room’s been alive, it means a lot to us,” Gamble said. “He’s seen a lot of great basketball, and he’s a fantastic coach. The simple fact he gave us that high praise gives us more motivation. This guy just told us we’re the best team he’s ever coached, so let’s take him where he’s never been before — to the national championship.”
The coach said his assistants have been watching as much tape as they can find on Pacific. So far, this is what they know.
“They’re very well-coached, very well-disciplined,” he said. “They’re a very hard-nosed defensive team. They deny a lot of passes and make it difficult for you to get into your offense. Their point guard is a fast, attacking guard and their coach is in his 25th year and kind of a legend there.”
Larranaga and his staff spent Monday deep in preparation for Friday’s game, but the coach and assistant Chris Caputo will take Tuesday off to attend the wake of their legendary high school basketball coach Jack Curran, who died in New York last week at the age of 82. Curran coached for 55 years at Archbishop Molloy High School.
“I loved the man,” said Larranaga, who added that he privately dedicated Sunday’s ACC championship win to his mentor. “He was my role model and inspiration for wanting to be a coach.”
Larranaga and Caputo will fly to New York on Tuesday morning and are scheduled to return after midnight. The team travels to Austin on Wednesday.
The Hurricanes picked up more awards Monday. Sophomore guard Shane Larkin was named to the ACC Coaches’ All-Conference first team. Kadji made second team, and Durand Scott was third team. Three UM players — Scott, Larkin and Gamble — made the ACC All-Defensive team.