The Miami Hurricanes won two games last week in which they squandered 16-point leads. They rely on a center with a negligible vertical leap, and their coach almost missed the program's marquee moment with a flu bug that sent him to the ER.
With guards Malcolm Grant and Durand Scott, and center Reggie Johnson, the Hurricanes' core talent was evident last season. But the Hurricanes seemed disjointed under coach Frank Haith, as their 6-10 ACC record reflected.
A tumultuous offseason included Haith's departure for Missouri, where he's guided the Tigers into the top five, and Jim Larranaga's arrival from George Mason, his home of 14 seasons. Other newcomers included transfers Kenny Kadji from Florida and Trey McKinney-Jones from Missouri-Kansas City, and freshman Shane Larkin, son of newly minted Baseball Hall of Fame member Barry Larkin.
The coaching transition, an ambitious schedule and knee surgery that sidelined Johnson for the season's first nine games virtually dictated a skittish start, and sure enough, Miami was 5-4 after consecutive losses to Memphis and West Virginia.
ACC competition brought no relief as the 6-foot-10 Johnson, laughably listed at only 284 pounds, played his way into shape. The Hurricanes opened 1-3 in conference, including a 52-51 setback at Virginia.
But they've since won four straight, highlighted by last week's overtime conquests of Maryland and Duke, the former in double-OT. So entering Thursday's home game against Virginia Tech (13-10, 2-6), Miami (14-7, 5-3) is positioned to secure its first NCAA tournament bid since 2008.
The Hurricanes are a solid 38th on the Rating Percentage Index used by the tournament selection committee and boast a signature victory at Duke.
"When you have a 16-point lead in both games, you lose that lead and end up going into overtime, it appears the momentum has shifted," Larranaga said. "You have to keep your poise, and to recover and make some big plays and end up with a W is a major step in the right direction for us. …
"I think a lot of it has to do with we're getting healthier, having Reggie back full-time and practicing a lot. Last week we did not have Kenny Kadji for the Maryland game because (of a head injury). But when you get your whole eight-man rotation, nine guys healthy and practicing for an extended period, then you're bound to improve."
The flu leveled Larranaga last week, and Saturday morning he went to a Miami-area emergency room.
"I was feeling so bad," Larranaga said, "but I was able to recover enough to get on the plane and go with the team (to Duke). I was really happy I did."
Ya think? Thanks to four 3-pointers from the 6-11 Kadji and a career-high 27 points from Johnson, the Hurricanes defeated the Blue Devils 78-74.
Johnson simply overpowered the Blue Devils inside, using his strength and girth to score at will, all from well below the rim.
"He has the ability to … finish around the basket, not by getting up, but by creating angles because of the size of his body," Tech coach Seth Greenberg said. "A lot of times there is a direct correlation between the size of someone's rear end and their ability to score. But he's like Sponge Bob Square Pants. The guy is square. It is impossible to get around the guy. …
"He catches anything that's thrown to him, which is a huge asset. You've got to give the guy credit. He's really doing some special things."
It's strange. Miami was the least-attractive of the four ACC head-coaching positions that opened after last season — Maryland, Georgia Tech and North Carolina State were the others — but in Larranaga the Hurricanes hired the most accomplished coach.
A former Virginia assistant who famously guided George Mason to the 2006 Final Four, he was lured south by family and the opportunity to run an ACC program. Revelations of improper benefits to athletes prior to his arrival blindsided Larranaga and may lead to sanctions, but presently the vibe is positive, prompting questions to Larranaga about his team's NCAA prospects.
"We've played 21 games at this point," he said. "It's a 30-game test. You don't know what your final grade is until you've answered all 30 questions. It's going to be the next nine games that really determine what kind of year we've had."