Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Miami Miracle

By Jean Neuberger

Take a look at the latest edition of the AP top 25.

Indiana is at the top spot. Well deserved, as the Hoosiers would be my pick to win it all in March at the moment. Why not? It's the year of the Harbaugh family, after all.

Scroll down the list. Duke? Yep. Arizona? Absolutely. Miami?

Definitely. But how in the name of Luther Campbell have the Hurricanes done it this year?

Like many, I was somewhat surprised when Jim Larranaga left George Mason, where he made history by taking the Patriots to their first Final Four, for Coral Gables. While it is a program in a hoops-crazy conference, it's still The U. When you think of the U, you think of football. You think of the showy, cocky teams of the '80s and '90s. You think of the scandal and the showboating and the old Orange Bowl stadium. You don't think about hoops.

So when Larranaga took a job at a true football school like Miami, it was stunning. This is a school that "loved" its former coach, Frank Haith, so much that it handed him to Mizzou with no buyout required. This was anything but a final fitting stop for a coach who had already etched his name into the NCAA record books.

But now we've figured it out: Larranaga is the Bill Snyder of college basketball. He goes to places that aren't supposed to make waves on the national scale, programs with little to no basketball history, and lo and behold, look what the man can do. Miami sits at 9-0 in conference play and a stunning 18-3 overall.

There are still doubters about the 'Canes, and to a degree, rightfully so. Is the ACC down? Yes. Duke is strong, yet looks vulnerable at times, especially when Miami blew them out by 27 earlier in the year. North Carolina, even though 6-3 in the conference, is mediocre at best. NC State has so far been overrated. The Canes lost to Florida Gulf Coast. They also lost to Indiana State and were blown out by Arizona.

However, the 'Canes are growing. They've won 10 in a row, including a nice out-of-conference win over a solid La Salle team. They've got a nice win over Michigan State to pad their resume. They're learning to win the close games on the road, as they took down NC State on Reggie Johnson's tip. They've got a solid interior presence with Johnson and Kenny Kadji and a fantastic guard duo in Durand Scott and Shane Larkin.

And they have Larranaga, the calm, yet tough captain, steering the 'Canes a la Bill Snyder, pulling the upsets out with clean, efficient play. He's had Tom Izzo's number at GMU and The U. He's got Roy Williams's number in the same fashion. During the Miami rout, instead of jumping and shouting frantically, he acted so calm that one wondered if he knew what was coming all along. His teams are fundamentally sound, don't get too deep in foul trouble and don't shoot themselves in the foot. In his first year, Larranaga flew quietly under the radar. This year, not so much, as he's sitting on top by two games over Duke.

With a schedule that seems mostly winnable (trips to Duke and Florida State could be tricky), the 'Canes will be assured a great seed heading into March. And what teams are deadly come the dance? Ones with great inside-outside threats, veteran guard leadership, confidence from lots of winning and coaches who know how to get their teams to peak at the right times.

Luther Campbell might need to grab a basketball. LeBron and D-Wade might have to take a step back for once. Miami is moving into the basketball elite. And it doesn't look like they'll go away anytime soon.

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