By Jon Rothstein
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NC State has been anointed as the team to beat in the ACC.READ MORE: Driver Hurt When MTA Bus Crashes With Van, Jumps Curb In Brooklyn
The Wolfpack bring back four starters from last year’s team that advanced to the Sweet 16 and add three talented freshmen in Rodney Purvis, T.J. Warren, and Tyler Lewis.
Florida State is coming off a season in which they won the ACC Tournament and beat North Carolina and Duke twice along the way. The Seminoles have made themselves a perennial contender in the conference and regardless of the defections in Durham and Chapel Hill, the Blue Devils and Tarheels will always represent the gold standard in one of college basketball’s most storied leagues.
But what about Miami?
The Hurricanes had the same regular season conference record as NC State last year (9-7) and return everyone on their roster of significance except for shooting guard Malcolm Grant and burly forward DeQuan Jones. After a season in which Miami coach Jim Larranaga had to deal with nagging injuries on what seemed to be a daily basis, the Hurricanes finally appear to be healthy — and that could be bad news for the rest of the ACC.
“We’ll be healthier going into this season than we were at any point a year ago,” said Larranaga, whose team finished 20-13 last year and lost to Minnesota in the NIT. “We were be under one impression as a team last year and then things would change regularly. We’d lose somebody or then someone else would come back. Our chemistry should be much better than it was last season.”
A big reason for that is Reggie Johnson.
The 6-10 big man missed the start of last year with a knee injury but appeared in 23 games and averaged 10 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. Johnson also was unstoppable (27 points, 12 rebounds) in a win at Duke on February 5th.
“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.”READ MORE: New Jersey Under State Of Emergency As Nor'easter Threatens Flood Prone Areas
If he does, expect the same from Kenny Kadji. The lanky forward excelled as a high post threat when Johnson returned to Miami’s lineup last season, averaging 13.4 points per game when paired with the broad shouldered center.
“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.”
Forward Julian Gamble is fully healed from a knee injury and should be ready to have a major role. Freshman shot blocker Tonye Jekiri may be a year away from contributing but has good size at 6-11.
Larranaga seems committed to a combination of veterans at small forward in Rion Brown and Trey McKinney-Jones. 6-6 senior Garrius Adams could also be in the mix but is coming off a knee injury.
“We expect Rion and Trey to share the 3 spot,” Larranaga said. “They’re both excellent three-point shooters and excellent defenders. Rion really closed out last season strong offensively and we hope he picks up where he left off.”
Miami should have one of the better back courts in the ACC with Durand Scott and Shane Larkin. Scott, a senior should be primed for a big time year without Grant being a focal point in the Hurricanes offense and Larkin was mightily impressive last season as a freshman (7.4 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 2.5 APG).
“I think Durand will have his best season ever,” Larranaga said of Scott, who averaged 12.9 points and 5.4 rebounds per game last year as a junior. “Shane Larkin is someone we’re counting on. We need his assists totals to go up. Bishop Daniels is another guy who’s a sleeper. He’s a great athlete and without question the fastest guy on our team.”
With better health and more capable bodies, Larranaga should be able to augment the pace and take advantage of his team’s depth and athleticism.
“We should be able to pressure the ball more,” Larranaga said. “We’re hoping to have the opportunity to play more how we’d like to play. We know we haven’t done what the traditional powers have done. Last year was the first time ever Miami had a winning record in ACC play. We had the same regular season record last year as both Virginia and NC State. If we improve and stay healthy, we have a chance to have a very good year.”MORE NEWS: MTA Says It's Prepared To Deal With Subway Flooding, Commuters Encouraged To Use Mass Transit
Your prediction for Miami? Be heard in the comments below…