CORAL GABLES, Fla. – A burly man with a big grin hollered in support of the Miami Hurricanes, his voice standing out even amid the crowd’s clamor.
“I heard somebody scream my name when I was shooting a free throw,” guard Shane Larkin said. “I looked, and it was Warren Sapp. I was like, that’s crazy.”
Even for a 300-pound former NFL star, there’s still room on the Miami bandwagon. But it’s growing fast.
The No. 25-ranked Hurricanes (14-3, 5-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) are alone atop the league standings at 5-0, their best ACC start. A rare capacity crowd of 7,972, including Sapp, turned out for Miami’s latest victory, a 90-63 drubbing of No. 1 Duke on Wednesday night.
“This is my fifth year here, and I’ve never ever seen the gym like that before,” center Reggie Johnson said. “It was special. Hopefully we can keep it going.”
The sellout was only the 10th in the Hurricanes’ 10-year-old on-campus arena, and another full house is expected Sunday when they play rival Florida State.
“That’s our goal – to get people excited about our program,” coach Jim Larranaga said. “It’s the first time in the university’s basketball history that we’ve been able to create that kind of buzz. This school is not necessarily known as a basketball school.”
Larranaga has the Hurricanes on the rise in only his second season with the school, and their success is welcome tonic as the athletic department awaits the results of an NCAA investigation that began more than a year ago.
The Hurricanes cracked the ranking this week for the first time in three years. The victory over a No. 1 team was their first in program history.
“It’s something that has never been done before, and the guys are very excited about it,” guard Durand Scott said. “But we know this is just now. We’ve got more to work on, and more that’s ahead of us. Now everybody is going to see Miami as ‘that team.’ We’ve got to come out every game like it’s the last.”
The Hurricanes’ schedule ranks among the toughest in the nation. Their six-game winning streak includes three road league victories, and they beat No. 13 Michigan State at home in November. They appear likely to make the NCAA tournament for only the second time since 2002, thanks to a team that is deep, big and experienced.
Larranaga, who led George Mason to a Final Four berth in 2006, preaches aggressiveness on defense and balance on offense. Scott, Larkin and Trey McKinney Jones are solid perimeter players, while 6-foot-10 Johnson, 6-10 Julian Gamble and 6-11 Kenny Kadji are forces inside.
Gamble is a sixth-year senior; Scott, Johnson, Kadji and McKinney Jones are also seniors. The five have started 282 games for the Hurricanes.
“They’ve got some great fifth- and sixth-year players, old guys who are really good and accustomed to playing together,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
The 292-pound Johnson, an intriguing NBA prospect, gave the Hurricanes a lift when he came off the bench against Duke after being sidelined since Dec. 18 with a broken left thumb. He hadn’t been able to practice but called Larranaga on Wednesday morning with the surprising news he was ready to return.
“He basically was jumping through the phone,” Larranaga said. “He was so excited that the doctors cleared him to play. I didn’t think he was going to be back until some time in February.”
Johnson gives the Hurricanes extra heft as they head into the heart of their ACC schedule. With Duke and No. 18 North Carolina State the league’s only other ranked teams, this might be the year to shake up the conference’s traditional hierarchy.
And so the bandwagon grows, in South Florida at least. But the perennially overlooked Hurricanes aren’t certain how much the win over Duke helped their national reputation.
“Who knows, man,” Johnson said. “Some people probably still don’t believe. But we believe in ourselves. As long as we believe in each other, we’re fine.”