Last year in Jim Larranaga's first season at the helm for the University of Miami, everything that could go wrong, did. Explosive forward DeQuan Jones missed the first 10 games while the Nevin Shapiro smoke settled. Center Reggie Johnson missed a chunk of the season following knee surgery, and when he returned (minus one monster game at Duke), he was not himself. Julian Gamble, a key front court reserve, missed the entire season. Ditto, explosive combo guard Bishop Daniels. Senior Malcolm Grant lost an older brother prematurely, and understandably had a season long shooting slump. Finally when Miami needed them the most, Johnson (1 game) and leading scorer Durand Scott (6 games, including three to start this year), were suspended and missed key games down the stretch, due to improper benefits. And yet Miami STILL finished the season just one win short of an NCAA birth, and with an ACC conference record at 9-7 (their best ever). If the 'Canes can allude all of the misfortune that hamstrung them last year, they could and should vie for an ACC crown. They have that much talent. The key will be Johnson, who appears to finally be healthy.
"He’s so much better than he was at any point last year," Larranaga said of the 6-10 Johnson.
"Reggie is 50% better a player than he was at any point last season. He's more agile. He's quicker. He has a chance to have a special season."
This could mean bad news for the rest of the league. Johnson is as big a mismatch as there is in the ACC when he is on. He will have plenty of help as the Hurricanes boast a very deep squad. Anything short of an NCAA Tournament bid would be a major disappointment for this squad.
If all goes according to plan, Shane Larkin will break out and establish himself as one of the best PGs in the conference this year. The son of baseball hall of fame shortstop Barry Larkin averaged 7.4 points, 2.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 1.6 steals last season. He is also one of the quickest, most athletic players in the nation. Miami also has the luxury of sliding Durand Scott to the point when Larkin needs a breather. Scott has been one of the best penetrating guards in the conference for 3 years now, and is coming off of a season in which he averaged a 12.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 3.1 assists. Miami is likely to employ a three guard rotation, and the third starter is a toss up between Rion Brown (39% 3P%) and Trey McKinney Jones (37% 3P%) Coach Jim Larranaga can't go wrong with either guy. Brown averaged 14.7 ppg over the last 4 games of the season, when things seemed to click for him. McKinney Jones, who is a versatile performer, will look to slash more this season. The wildcard of the group is explosive athlete Bishop Daniels, coming off a redshirt season due to injury. Miami can also count on 6'6 senior Garrius Adams, who can play either guard spot. Overall UM's depth in the backcourt is an embarrassment of riches.
As noted earlier, the key to the entire season for the talented 'Canes could come down to the health of 6'10 285 pound C Reggie Johnson. When healthy, there is no worse match-up nightmare in the ACC then the big body and soft touch of Johnson.
When Johnson isn't causing nightmares down low, 6'11 Kenny Kadji (11.7 ppg 5.3 rpg 42% 3P%) is a versatile big man who can score on the block or from downtown. The scary part for the rest of the ACC is that Kadji is only getting better.
"He looks like a right handed Chris Bosh," Larranaga said of Kadji.
"He's running the floor incredibly well and he's dropped weight. He's down to 242 from 262."
In addition to Johnson and Kadji, 6'9 sixth year senior Julian Gamble returns from injury. Gamble may not be the type of player to put up big numbers, but his intangibles and leadership should not be undervalued. Raphael Akpejori is a 6'10 junior who provides depth. As does 6'11 freshman Tonye Jekiri. Look for the combination of Johnson and Kadji to be as good as any 4/5 combo in the country.
2012-13 is the first year that the ACC has expanded to an 18 game conference schedule. And with that the 'Canes get 2 shots at North Carolina and Duke. We expect UM to be better then a bubble squad this season, but should they need the help, the more cracks at a signature win the better. Miami will also have 2 contests with arch rival and defending ACC Tournament champs FSU, but just one game at league favorite NC State. Outside of the ACC the schedule is highlighted by a home contest against Michigan State in the ACC/Big Ten challenge on 11/28 and a trip to Hawaii for the Diamond Head Classic 12/22-25 where they will play Hawaii and could play Arizona, San Diego State, or Ole Miss. The out of conference schedule is top heavy but not deep. The key to UM's season will be how they perform in conference.
If Johnson and Scott have all conference ability, Kadji and Larkin aren't far behind. Miami has not had a team this talented in hoops since Leonard Hamilton's Big East squad made the Sweet 16 in 2000. They have a coach in Jim Larranaga who is no stranger to magical runs. Everything seems to be in place for this UM squad to be the best in the program's history. But it will not be easy. The ACC is always a deep and competitive conference. Nonetheless I expect the 'Canes to finish top 4 in the ACC and win anywhere from 20-24 games,easily making the tourney. From there the sky is the limit.