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30 January 2013

Larranaga, veteran squad become contenders in ACC

Jim Larranaga tripped and nearly hit the pavement as he greeted several hundred voracious fans lined up hours before last week’s Duke game.

So he turned on his heel, started to laugh, and rolled his hands to signal a traveling call – on himself.

The 63-year-old coach hasn’t hit a bump in the road since.

Miami is flying high after a flawless week that saw two hugely important home victories over the top-ranked Blue Devils and the Florida State Seminoles.

At last, basketball at the U has developed from an afterthought into primetime entertainment.

At last, the standard ACC powerhouses aren’t just beatable – they’re beneath us.

At last, we’re not begging students to walk 45 steps from Hecht to the BUC. We’re turning away latecomers because the arena is already at capacity.

We have Larranaga to thank.

His knowledge, charisma and energy have ignited the Hurricanes since he took the job in 2011.

The team’s current undefeated stretch of conference dominance is the product of Larranaga’s exciting brand of basketball.

It’s a fierce team mindset that starts with a swarming defensive foundation.

Not including Wednesday night’s game on the road against Virginia Tech, the Canes held all but one of their opponents in January to fewer than 60 points.

The one squad that was able to break the barrier was Duke, which scored 63. But as we all know, by then Miami was well on its way to 90.

There were hints of this growth last season: Miami finished 9-7 in the ACC, a mark that showed some potential but fell short of a NCAA Tournament berth. The overtime road win at Cameron Indoor was galvanizing, but the Canes failed to sustain that momentum.

This year could be different. This team has built on that experience and benefits from veteran leadership; four of Miami’s five starters are seniors.

Julian Gamble, while admittedly less orange, is throwing down put-back dunks like a young Jimmy Graham.

Durand Scott and Shane Larkin are both intelligent ball handlers who can create their own shots or find the open man.

And perhaps most notable, the surprisingly versatile Kenny Kadji is a legitimate scoring threat, whether he’s driving the lane or pulling up from 3-point range.

Leonard Hamilton was full of genuine respect after the Hurricanes trounced his lagging Seminoles on Sunday.

“There is no question this is a top team in America, a nationally ranked team, and they will have a chance to earn their rightful place,” he said.

Hamilton led the Canes to their all-time best ranking (No. 9) and a trip to the Sweet 16 during his time on Miami’s bench, which makes his high praise even more gratifying.

The Hurricanes are ranked 14th in the Associated Press poll, just a week after their first appearance this season at No. 25. The quick ascension won’t be lost on the 11 ACC opponents left on Miami’s schedule.

January was good to Larranaga and the Canes, there’s no doubting that.

But Miami is prepared to intensify its focus and ignore the extra attention, because this team might be playing deep into March.