When Jim Larranaga shows his Miami team video from two years ago, when the Hurricanes surprised everyone to win the ACC regular-season and tournament titles, he never fails to point out the ranking next to Miami on the screen.
Sometimes, in video from early in the season, there’s no number at all. By the end, it gets all the way down to No. 2. At a time when many are once again paying little attention to Miami, Larranaga drives that history home repeatedly.
“He always makes sure he points it out,” guard Angel Rodriguez said. “ ‘You see this number? What does it mean? It absolutely means nothing,’ he always says. So we leave that up to the fans and the experts, whoever wants to give you respect. All we can do is play, and it will take care of itself.”
That team relied heavily on impact transfers Shane Larkin, the eventual ACC Player of the Year, and Kenny Kadji. This team will rely heavily on Rodriguez, a point guard from Kansas State, and Sheldon McClellan, a shooting guard from Texas.
In a season when the ACC boasts four legitimate national title contenders in Duke, North Carolina, Louisville and Virginia, there isn’t much room at the top, but the influx of elite talent – Rodriguez averaged 11.2 points and 5.4 assists and McClellan 13.5 points against Big 12 competition in 2012-13 – might make the Hurricanes an ACC sleeper, not unlike two years ago.
Larranaga worked miracles of wizardry to coax seven ACC wins out of a young and not particularly threatening Hurricanes team last year. Four players are back from that team, but the Hurricanes return the least amount of scoring and rebounding in the conference, which makes the injection of top-level talent sorely needed.
Figuring out how to mix the returning players with the newcomers might be Larranaga’s most pressing concern, but he more than anyone has a road map for making it work.
“I would say it’s less difficult, but still difficult,” Larranaga said. “Because the thing about coaching is, you have your teaching methods, you have your style of play, you have your teaching points, and if they’ve come from programs where the style is considerably different, it’s quite a transition for those transfers to make.
“We’ve been very fortunate. The guys we’ve had transfer in have fit in beautifully with our program.”
The Hurricanes have one returning starter who will still be a starter, center Tonye Jekiri, and one who probably won’t, point guard Manu Lecomte. They also bring back one part-time starter, guard Davon Reed, to go with three Division I transfers, one junior-college transfer, one redshirt freshman and four incoming freshmen.
It’s quite a mix.
“Coach L feels like we have enough weapons to score,” Rodriguez said. “His concern is not scoring, although we work on it obviously. His concern is defense, because we feel like there are some very good teams in this league, and when you have a lot of newcomers, you have to spend a lot of time teaching the small things on defense.”
From Larranaga’s perspective, Miami’s most important transfer might be getting the least attention. Rodriguez and McClellan figure to be big-time scorers, but Niagara transfer Joe Thomas might have the most critical role. Two years ago, few noticed Trey McKinney-Jones’ transfer from Missouri-Kansas City until he became a key player for Miami.
Larranaga expects Thomas to step in at forward and have the same kind of impact. If he does, Larranaga might have the same kind of surprise awaiting the ACC this season.