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Jan. 22, 2013
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. – If you’re looking for a ticket to Miami’s home game against Duke Wednesday night, don’t ask Hurricanes coach Jim Larranaga.
“We're going to have a sellout crowd,” he said. “I don't think there is a ticket that's going to be available. I've had to turn down friends who normally I'd be begging them to come and give us some support. But now I don't have tickets myself.”
There’s an oddity of circumstances for the 7 p.m. game. Duke goes into the contest ranked No. 1 in the country but the Hurricanes are No. 1 in the ACC. Miami is alone in first place with a 4-0 record (13-3 overall) while the Blue Devils are 3-1 (16-1 overall).
The Hurricanes broke into the Associated Press rankings at No. 25 this week, which adds to the excitement that has been building around the campus in Coral Gables. While Larranaga cautions that it’s only the fifth of 18 ACC games, he doesn’t deny the importance of this meeting.
“I don't think there is any question there's been a huge buzz and there's been (one) for a while,” he said. “I really like the way it's growing, the progress it's making. Last year when my staff and I arrived, it was thought we don't draw unless you play Carolina or Duke.
“We have a lot of people talking about our basketball program right now and we're headed in the right direction.”
So who are these Hurricanes who have swept their first four ACC games?
They’re a team that has adjusted to playing with one of its top performers, 6-foot-10 senior Reggie Johnson. He was averaging a double-double (12.6 points, 10.1 rebounds) through seven games before being sidelined by a broken thumb. Against Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium last season, Johnson scored 27 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in Miami’s 78-74 overtime win.
Into that breech has stepped 6-10 Julian Gamble, who is averaging 8.8 points and 6.8 rebounds in four ACC games. Gamble, who redshirted as a true freshman, also missed last year with a knee injury and was granted a medical redshirt. He is now playing the best basketball of his career.
“Gamble is a sixth-year senior and is averaging close to a double-double in the last five or six games,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. “I mean, he's really been a key for them. The thing they do with their big guys is they protect their basket so well, and that's why they've been a really good defensive team.
“They're an old, very good team. They're accustomed to playing together, and they've adjusted really well with a key guy out. I'm sure they'd like to have (Johnson) back, but they're playing pretty well without him.”
The Hurricanes start three other seniors – 6-5 Trey McKinney-Jones (9.5 points), 6-11 Kenny Kadji (12.5 points, 7.3 rebounds) and 6-5 Durand Scott (13.5 points). Rounding out the lineup is sophomore point guard Shane Larkin (12.2 points, 3.9 assists).
“I think players love the excitement,” Larranaga said. “There is talk that we'll have students camping out (Tuesday) night so that they can get the best seats in the house come Wednesday.”
Arriving at this point has been a long process for Miami. Although it boasted the top scorer in the nation in Rick Barry during the 1960s, attendance was so sparse that the program was shut down for 15 years before being revived in 1985.
Eventually it became a very good program in the Big East and a new arena, now called the BankUnited Center, opened in 2004. But the Hurricanes managed only occasional success when they joined the ACC a year later. The school lists the capacity as 7,200 and sellouts have been rare. Duke drew the top crowd of 7,972 two years ago, and that record may be surpassed Wednesday.
When the basketball job came open before the 2011-12 season, it intrigued Larranaga. As an assistant at Virginia in the 1980s, he experienced two Final Fours. He built a successful program at George Mason, taking it to a Final Four. He knew what he was getting into when he accepted job at Miami, which competes for attention with the NBA’s Miami Heat and LeBron James.
“It's very, very challenging,” Larranaga said. “We had the same situation at George Mason. We were in a large, metropolitan area where the competition for the entertainment dollar was keen. Everybody said we couldn't draw and we couldn't build a great basketball program because, basically, Maryland and Georgetown dominated the DC area. And the pro fans followed the (NBA) Wizards and the (NHL) Caps. But we didn't listen to the naysayers.
“We just did what we planned on doing here in Miami, and that is build a grassroots network of people who support our program. Build a foundation and a winning attitude, and getting kids who make a commitment and want to play at the highest level of college basketball.”
While the atmosphere might still be new for the Hurricanes, the Blue Devils are no strangers to walking into a frenzied environment, even though they are also without an injured key player in 6-11 Ryan Kelly.
“The people (in Miami) should be excited about their team,” Krzyzewski said. “They're 4-0 and in the top 10 RPI. Every game that we play in, there's a good atmosphere. Wednesday will be no different than any other game we play except that we're playing an outstanding team.”
Win or lose, the process of building the Hurricanes’ program will continue. They want to get to the point where every game is treated as special, not just one or two per season. And Larranaga would like nothing better than to run out of tickets for every home game.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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