March 21, 2013

Miami counting on veteran savvy to make its NCAA mark

Hurricanes lean on five seniors in efforts to reach first Final Four in school history

No player on the Miami Hurricanes’ roster has appeared in the NCAA Tournament heading into Friday’s matchup against Pacific in the Frank Erwin Center.

But the squad has a familiar look to second-year coach Jim Larranaga, who called the similarities “a little bit striking” between these Canes and a group he led to a spot in NCAA lore: George Mason’s 2006 team that reached the Final Four as a No. 11 seed.

“We had great senior leadership, older guys … guys who had redshirted. We had three seniors in our starting lineup back then,” Larranaga said Thursday. “This Miami team has four seniors in the starting lineup, and one sophomore. I think that combination of youthful enthusiasm and optimism, with experience and size and toughness, those things are similar.”

In many ways, the experience of the second-seeded Hurricanes (27-6) may be more significant in their tournament run — which begins Friday against Pacific (22-12) — than it was for George Mason in 2006. In an era dominated by one-and-done freshmen stars focused as much on the NBA Draft as the NCAA Tournament, the Hurricanes feature five seniors among their top six players.

That experience, said Larranaga, “gave us quite an advantage during the ACC race” because the league featured several younger teams. And the wily veterans from Miami not only won the regular-season title, they captured the conference tournament crown as well.

Now, the Hurricanes head into the NCAA Tournament in quest of the school’s first trip beyond the Sweet 16. A Final Four berth, even a national championship, remains possible in the estimation of forward/center Kenny Kadji, a fifth-year senior who began his college career at Florida.

“I think we have been through all kinds of games, seen all types of situations,” Kadji said. “We can play any type of game: fast game, slow game, it doesn’t matter. And executing. We’re a very good team at doing that.”

Although the floor leader is sophomore point guard Shane Larkin, a national player of the year candidate, the rest of the Hurricanes’ core group includes one sixth-year senior (forward/center Julian Gamble), three fifth-year seniors (Kadji, center Reggie Johnson, guard Trey McKinney Jones) and guard Durand Scott, a senior and four-year starter.

Among the tops seeds to win the 2013 NCAA Tournament, no team can match the Hurricanes’ veteran savvy among the six players who have logged the most minutes this season. Not even Kansas, the top seed in the South Regional. The Jayhawks (29-5) have leaned on four seniors, a freshman and a sophomore for their primary minutes this season.

Among the Miami veterans, teammates consider Scott the motivational compass of the Canes. He leads the team in floor burns, defensive stops and locker room respect.

“He’s an emotional player. He shows his emotions on the court,” said Larkin, the ACC Player of the Year who leads the team in points (14.6) and assists (4.4). “But he never gets too high. He’s very experienced, very poised on the floor. Watching him play with the intensity he does, it motivates me to go out there and play with the same amount of intensity that he does. That’s probably what I’ve learned the most from him.”

Scott, the lone four-year starter in the Hurricanes’ lineup, understands what his intangibles mean to teammates.

“I can’t let them down,” said Scott, who averages 13.2 points per game. “I know that at any given moment, I have to step up. Have to be there for them, whichever way they need it. Mentally, physically, (diving) for a loose ball, making a shot … “

Pacific coach Jim Thomason said this Miami team has an uncanny patience about it, something that can be acquired only through time spent together.

“It’s unique,” Thomason said. “They understand each other. Miami having all those seniors really gives them a strength. One of the strengths of a veteran basketball team is letting other players have great nights. And their team does that.”

But despite this year’s ACC titles, questions still surround Miami’s NCAA pedigree because this will be the team’s first trip to the Big Dance since 2008. Gamble, a 2007 signee who received a medical exemption to play in his sixth season, insists this team will be ready because of its veteran savvy and the influence of Larranaga, who has a combined mark of 47-19 in two seasons at the school.

“He’s really changed the culture of our entire team. He’s gotten us back to worrying about the fundamentals of the game and doing the little things well,” Gamble said. “That’s what good teams do. They’re very disciplined. They do the little things well.”

Spoken like a savvy veteran preparing to make his NCAA debut. Miami, like 2006 George Mason, has a roster dotted with lots of those.

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