CORAL GABLES, Fla. (AP) - Last fall, when Miami Hurricanes basketball still operated in the shadows of the football program, coach Jim Larranaga dropped in on a meeting of university officials and predicted a big season for his team.
"I went to the board of trustees," Larranaga recalls, "and I said, `I'm the basketball coach. I don't know if you guys know that or not. But we're going to have perhaps the best season in school history."'
Larranaga was right. The Hurricanes cracked the Top 25 in late January, climbed to a school-record No. 2 a month later and have earned at least a share of their first Atlantic Coast Conference championship with two games to go, both at home.
That ensures plenty of motivation for Miami to bounce back quickly from Saturday's thrilling but wrenching loss at Duke.
"These kids are pretty resilient," Larranaga says. "They know we've got a lot more basketball ahead of us."
Now ranked No. 6, the Hurricanes (23-5, 14-2) play Georgia Tech on Wednesday and Clemson on Saturday. Win either game, and they clinch their first outright league basketball title.
Larranaga says that while he and his coaches expected such success from the senior-laden team, his players needed some convincing. A road victory Jan. 10 against North Carolina did the job.
"When we won at Carolina, I could see everything changed," Larranaga says. "They really believed that if were good enough to win at Chapel Hill, we should be good enough to win anywhere."
They went on to win their first 13 league games before losing at Wake Forest. While the Hurricanes have now dropped two consecutive road games, they're 13-0 in Coral Gables, where six seniors will play for the final time this week.
"It's pretty exciting, but sad at the same time," senior guard Durand Scott says. "The best thing I can do at this point is get two wins in this building."
For a change, the Hurricanes enjoy a considerable home-court advantage thanks to their burgeoning bandwagon. A succession of sellout crowds transformed the traditionally sleepy gym into a raucous environment.
"It has been great to see those stands filled up, and everybody cheering for you really gives you a lot of energy," junior guard Rion Brown says. "I hope they do it for the last two games for the seniors."
Brown, the son of former Georgia Tech player Tico Brown, came off the bench to score a career-high 22 points when Miami beat the Yellow Jackets 62-49 in January. That game marked the start of a conference season that has been a disappointment for the Yellow Jackets (15-13, 5-11).
"We expect them to give us their hardest," Brown says. "We've had that target on our back this whole year. We definitely expect their best, so we have to get ready to give them our best."
The Hurricanes know the time is near to be at their peak.
"We're healthy; we're playing well," Larranaga says. "But I think we can play better than we have. We're not done yet. We can get better."
The Hurricanes need improvement in particular from senior center Reggie Johnson, who has shot 3 for 15 in the past three games. Against Duke he went 0 for 5 and did not score.
Larranaga also looks for improvement on defense. The Hurricanes have held six league opponents to 50 points or less, but they gave up 80 in the loss to Wake Forest and 79 at Duke, and Larranaga says there's been slippage in defensive efficiency.
"It may only be like a 1-percent drop, but it's the opposite direction we want to go," he says. "We want to be improving. We wanted to be the best defensive team in the country. We really need to show that now.
"When we started out we were not very good defensively. We've improved dramatically in that area, and we need to continue to pay very close attention to it, because it's very easy for players to get caught up in their offensive numbers, especially at this time of year."