Miami basketball taking campus, nation by storm

by | College Basketball Insider

WASHINGTON -- It wasn't all that long ago that 6-foot-11 Kenny Kadji was mistaken for a football player, when Jim Larranaga could walk through the plush Coral Cables campus in virtual anonymity. Those were the days when no one gave a damn about Miami basketball, when the only attention bestowed upon this program was due to its mediocrity and the ongoing NCAA investigation that put this year's postseason in jeopardy.

"We're changing the culture here," said Kadji, one of five seniors on the Hurricanes team.

The culture had been one of pain and insignificance. No one cared about Miami basketball. This was the U, where all that matters is what happens on the gridiron. In his seven seasons at the helm, former men's basketball coach Frank Haith went to one NCAA tournament and left a team that finished in the cellar in 2010.

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Enter Jim Larranaga. He took over in 2011, and inherited an ongoing NCAA investigation and also a bunch of guys who hadn't won much of anything. Booster Nevin Shapiro was claiming he gave money, lavish gifts and other goodies to former players in both sports. Larranaga was coming down to Florida in his 60s from George Mason, and the running joke was that he'd go straight from the sidelines to the nursing home.

Athletic wing DeQuan Jones was suspended for the first 10 games of last season following allegations someone in his circle received money for his commitment to Miami. Durand Scott was hit with a six-game penalty by the NCAA at the end of last season for accepting impermissible benefits from former assistant coach Jorge Fernandez. If Scott didn't miss the entire ACC tournament, there was a chance that Miami could have gone dancing. Instead, the Canes headed to the NIT.

This was an unenviable situation without the NCAA investigation, arguably the most difficult job in the ACC due to a lack of resources and fan support. It's a pro sports town. The players used to yearn for road games, instead of playing in an empty arena or in front of fans that were consistently cheering for the opposing team. There was no way Larranaga, who took George Mason to an improbable Final Four in 2006, could turn this program. Not at his age, with the deck stacked high against him.

One year later, Larranaga has taken the program into the national spotlight and two steps away from the Final Four.

No longer can Larranaga walk around without being mobbed. Kadji can't trick anyone into believing he's a men's volleyball player as he did as recently as a year ago (the school doesn't even have a men's volleyball program). Scott can't go anywhere without being recognized. LeBron and D-Wade even made a cameo at the team's rout over North Carolina back in February.

"It's so different. Everyone knows us now," Scott said. "We have thousands more fans that we've never seen or heard from before. Everyone jumps on the wagon when you're winning."

A victory against third-seeded Marquette on Thursday would be victory No. 30 of the season for the Hurricanes. This Miami team made history, sweeping the ACC regular-season and tournament titles for the first time. The Canes earned a No. 2 seed, have knocked off Pacific and Illinois to advance to the Sweet 16 for just the second time ever. It's still unclear whether Larranaga and his staff, who lose most of their key players and could also watch sophomore point guard Shane Larkin declare for the NBA Draft after winning ACC Player of the Year honors, will be able to sustain anything close to this type of success.

But for now, it's captivating the campus. And the nation.

"We started to get drunk now for the basketball games instead of just the football games. It's now a big deal," said Paul Aherne, a sophomore majoring in business management. "We have watch parties at Shake Shack across the street. A lot of kids like to camp out in front of the [Bank United Center] when they come home from tournaments -- like when they came home from the ACC, we had a huge group of people there to cheer on our team to let them know that we really appreciate what they're doing for the school."

"To be honest, I'm rooting a lot more for this basketball team than I ever have for our football team," added sophomore Dylan Roth. "We'll see how it goes next year and the year after that, but I think we're definitely just moving on from just being a football school."

Kadji walked into his English class earlier in the week and got a standing ovation from his classmates and even the professor. Larranaga has gone on the full-fledged media tour, an intelligent move since he needs to utilize this team's success to lure future recruits to the program. Julian Gamble's photobombs have made him a celebrity. Larranaga's impression, with the footwork and all, of Muhammad Ali have continued to make both he and his program fan favorites.

Florida Gulf Coast may be Cinderella, but Miami has become as likable as a Disney princess.

Larranaga is the likable, grandfatherly figure. These kids have been through plenty and have risen from the ashes to become college basketball's top regular-season storyline, edging out Tobacco Road powers Duke and North Carolina, along with preseason ACC favorite N.C. State, to win the league title. Kadji left Florida after just one season after barely playing. Trey McKinney-Jones transferred from UMKC and is now starting. Gamble was granted a sixth-year of eligibility and Scott had to deal with the NCAA suspension.

"Last year was tough," Scott said. "Watching the games at home wasn't easy. We're fortunate to be here, and just enjoying the process."

Larkin, the son of former major league baseball star Barry Larkin, has taken this team to a different level. They had talent, but now the Hurricanes have an elite-level floor leader to go along with their experience and mental toughness. Larkin leads the team in scoring (14.5) and assists, but Scott and Kadji both average in double-figures and McKinney-Jones adds 9.2 points per contest. Miami will be without senior big man Reggie Johnson (knee) this week, but Gamble has already proven more than capable and has retained his starting spot even after Johnson returned from an earlier wrist injury.

"With everything we've been through, it makes it that much sweeter," Kadji said of the success. "We didn't even know if we'd be able to play in the NCAA tournament, but it's all turned out well. We've gone through so much adversity that it's just a minor setback when we're down in a game. We don't get rattled because we've been though much worse."

Even Fernandez, who declined to speak to about the NCAA investigation, is pulling hard for his former players. He watches every game from his home in Florida and couldn't be happier for the team's success, saying this team has impressed him with their chemistry and acceptable of roles.

"These kids deserve all the success they've had," Fernandez said, "Obviously, I've got a personal attachment with some of the kids and I couldn't be happier for them. I'm hoping they win the national championship."

The Miami Heat are in the midst of a 27-game winning streak and threatening the NBA's all-time record. It's certainly overshadowed the Hurricanes' run to the Sweet 16, but this team is no longer anonymous. Especially not on its own campus.

Lorenzo Reyes contributed to the story.


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