First everyone had to wait for the stragglers, the Miami players bobbing in the flume of students on the court. Once they extracted themselves, these Hurricanes caught in the storm, the coach entered the locker room for a postgame chat that was anything but standard. The No. 1 team in the land had been reduced to cinders over the previous couple hours, and Jim Larranaga told his club to enjoy it before turning their attention to the work ahead. Then he left. Then sophomore guard Shane Larkin arranged a circle of chairs, center Kenny Kadji ratcheted up his African music, and one by one they jumped in the middle to dance.
The celebration was just getting started. By Thursday morning, campus hummed with Miami’s ascent to the top of the ACC and the program’s newborn relevancy, underwritten by the previous night’s mauling of Duke. Larkin walked to a 9:30 a.m. sports management class and fellow students stopped him, repeatedly, for chest bumps. As he made his way to his next class, Larkin estimated a group of 20 to 30 students followed along, talking about the game and asking for pictures all the way. The fans finally showed up. But that required Miami to arrive.
“Every program has to start somewhere,” Larkin said. “People are saying it was the biggest game in school history and it could be a program-changing game. Hopefully, with what we did, it put us on the map.”
Everything seems on the upswing for the basketball team with the best winning percentage in south Florida. One year after notching its first-ever winning record in ACC play, Miami is 5-0 in the league and thus two games clear of everyone else in the standings after its first victory over a No. 1 team in program history. And the Hurricanes are in position to defend that lead because the Hurricanes generally are in position to defend everything.
Duke scored 63 points on Wednesday night — itself a manageable total — and that was the most points Miami had allowed in a game since two days before Christmas. No one has scored 70 points on the Hurricanes since the season opener. Miami is eighth in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency (85.2 points per 100 possessions), one slot behind the Blue Devils team it just vanquished. Opponents shoot just 36.2 percent, the seventh best figure nationally and a “high-priority” number in the staff’s mind. The effective field goal percentage defense of 42.4 is still bested by only 13 teams.
In Miami’s first team meeting after the Final Four last April, Larranaga asked his team a question: Where did all four participants’ defenses rank nationally? Not shockingly, his players were clueless. So the coach who just finished his first year on the job gave them one: None of the four clubs finished lower than ninth.
“It’s definitely the biggest reason why we’ve continued to play well,” Larranaga said. “We’ve gotten better at helping each other. We’ve gotten better at rebounding at the defensive end of the floor. We’ve gotten better at communicating, at talking to each other and switching when its appropriate, showing when it’s appropriate, trapping the ball screen when that’s called for. Those subtle adjustments, to the common observer, don’t really mean much. But to a coach and to a player, when you see the impact it has on your opponent, you recognize it as a key to the game.”
Some of it was just a matter of time. Larranaga arrived after directing George Mason to five NCAA tournaments, including the 2006 Final Four run, and found a group of players making what he called “a major adjustment” to their thinking, especially on the defensive end. The result was acceptable enough in 2011-12 — 20 wins, that 9-7 finish in the ACC — but the Hurricanes don’t believe they came to grips fully with Larranaga’s philosophy until this year.
“Having another year under coach L has helped, just knowing exactly what he wants,” said senior guard Durand Scott, the team’s leading scorer. “When he came in, he came with a plan and a vision. He didn’t come with the intent of just getting by. We did so-so our first year, and the second year, we came to an understanding of what he wants and what he needs us to do. We just put everything together.”
The Hurricanes help each other now, but they are instinctive and aggressive enough to help themselves, too. Early in the second half, Larkin jumped on a simple Duke exchange after a made basket to produce a score that further buried the Blue Devils. He had taken note that, for most of the game, Duke’s primary ball-handlers managed inbound duties. After this particular score, he saw point guard Quinn Cook inbound the ball to center Mason Plumlee — and, in a fraction of a moment, deduced that Plumlee inevitably would return the pass to Cook. In a flash, Miami had the ball back, and after Larkin missed a three-pointer, the ball came back to him for a layup and a 30-point lead.
“I’m always watching, trying to catch a routine or a habit they’re doing,” Larkin said. “I just saw it, and I knew Mason Plumlee was going to have to pass it back to Quinn. When I saw him catch it, I just made a run for it. And he threw a pretty soft bounce pass, and I was able to pick it up.”
Every program needs a moment to compose itself. For Miami, that was Wednesday. The Hurricanes had cracked the top 25 and Warren Sapp and Jimmy Graham were among those in attendance for the showdown with Duke. Larranaga even had 20 guests fly into town for the event. The win over the Blue Devils means little if the Hurricanes lose their sense of purpose and thus their place near the apex of the ACC … but the point is they actually have that problem.
“Experiencing this together has given them a lot of confidence and quite frankly had given them a lot of joy,” Larranaga said. “To go through a winning streak like the one we’re on right now to start conference play, for the first time in school’s history, is very special to these players. They know they’re blazing a trail that’s never been blazed before.”
The Hurricanes’ second-year coach had dinner with his phalanx of friends and relatives as Wednesday’s delirium became Thursday’s, returning home after midnight. He had 96 text messages and 50 emails and responded to those until 1:30 a.m. He then re-watched the Duke game. He went to sleep at 3 a.m., then awoke 75 minutes later to drive his son to the airport.
In a matter of hours after what he deemed the biggest regular-season win of his coaching career, though, Larranaga dispatched a text message to the team that arrived on Larkin’s phone precisely at 7:41 a.m. It read: Great job last night. Enjoy the day, be ready for practice tomorrow. We must prepare for Florida State. Coach L.
“Right to the point,” Larkin said.
Memo delivered, but it was impossible to ignore the deliverance that preceded it. Scott, the 6-foot-5-inch senior from the Bronx, was stopped for pictures as he walked to his car. He received congratulatory text messages, about 15 he guessed, from numbers he didn’t recognize. He thanked them, then added: Who is this? After the senders identified themselves, Scott still didn’t know who they were.
He pulled up for a late-night meal at The Cheesecake Factory and continued to hear echoes of applause dissolve into the late-night air. Cars stopped and honked their horns at him as he crossed the street. He was steps away from the restaurant when he passed by a police officer, sitting outside another eatery, who had but one question for him.
“How’d the ‘Canes do tonight?” the officer asked, plainly oblivious. “Did they win?”
For the first time in a night of revelation, and maybe for the last time in a while, somebody had no idea who Durand Scott was or what Miami basketball had just done.
“The ‘Canes won tonight,” Scott assured the officer. “They did a good job.”