Practice begins with more experienced roster

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With basketball season around the corner, Reggie Johnson is healthy, in shape and confident.

If Miami’s senior center can stay that way, the Hurricanes will have a chance to do special things this season.

“We’re going to win big this year,” Johnson said. “I’m sorry if I sound cocky, but we’re going to win big. I think practices are harder than the games right now.”

Johnson has every right to be confident. The Hurricanes return nine scholarship players from the 2011-2012 roster that accounted for 80 percent of the Canes’ scoring. The only departures were guard Malcolm Grant, who is currently playing professionally in Cyprus, and swingman DeQuan Jones, who signed a training camp contract with the Orlando Magic.

Johnson is confident that this team, which tied for fourth in the conference last season, is ready to reach the next level.

“Our goal right now is to win the ACC,” he said. “We have to take small steps; nonconference, then conference, then postseason. Some of you probably think I’m crazy, but I’m telling you, we’re going to win big.”

Coach Jim Larranaga enters his second season with a seemingly more stable and healthy roster. The frontcourt, led by seniors Johnson and Kenny Kadji, will benefit from added depth, with 6-foot-10 dual forward/center Julian Gamble back from ACL surgery, along with junior Raphael Akpejiori and freshman Tonye Jekiri.

“I think Julian has impressed me as much or more than anybody on the team,” Larranaga said. “During the summer, he was in the weight room conditioning, getting stronger, and these last four  weeks he’s been very impressive running the floor, rebounding the basketball at both ends. He’s going to fit very much into our rotation.”

Sophomore Shane Larkin and senior Durand Scott lead the backcourt; the duo, when playing well, is as talented as any in the ACC. Larranaga believes Scott is capable of an exceptional season and will count on him for leadership on this experienced roster.

“Durant is a tough, hardnosed competitor, and whenever he’s out on the floor he’s going to give it 100 percent,” Larranaga said. “I think he’s going to have a sensational year. He’s really going to be our true leader. I’m excited about the improvement he’s made in his game.”

Miami finished 20-13 overall last season, falling to Minnesota in the second round of the NIT. The Hurricanes posted a school-record in ACC victories, including notable wins at home against FSU and on the road at Duke. Miami will play a formidable non-conference schedule, including a primetime contest against Michigan State at home in the ACC-Big 10 Challenge, and may play Arizona in the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii during Christmas break.

It’s Johnson’s final year as a Cane, and he knows that time is running out for him to leave a mark on Miami basketball.

“The time is now,” he said. “This is my last year. There’s no more next year. I’m definitely looking forward to that challenge. Don’t overlook us. That’s all I’m going to say.”