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A fan takes a picture with Miami's Reggie Johnson after a 90-63 win against Duke.

Alan Diaz, Associated Press - Ap

Rayno's college basketball insider: It's Hurricanes' season in the ACC

  • February 9, 2013 - 8:30 AM

Miami (Fla.) coach Jim Larranaga knows no one expected this.

Before the season started, college basketball reporters and analysts fell all over themselves to predict how the three Triangle squads -- Duke, North Carolina and North Carolina State -- would arrange themselves at the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Well, the surprise was on everyone else: Instead, it's Miami -- picked mostly to finish fourth or fifth in the league -- that leads the pack after a 9-0 conference start that featured victories over North Carolina and N.C. State. Oh, and over No. 4 Duke by 27 points.

The 63-year-old Larranaga, in his second year at Miami, has been here before. In 2006, he masterminded George Mason's Cinderella run to the Final Four. Now that he is heading another surprise team, he is authoring another strange bit of history, making the Hurricanes the first squad other than Duke or UNC to go 8-0 in the ACC since Virginia did it in 1981. One of the assistants on that Ralph Sampson-led Cavaliers team? Jim Larranaga.

With plenty of experience handling pressure, Larranaga is intent on keeping his team -- which has the No. 1 strength of schedule in the country and is the only major-conference program undefeated in league play -- concentrating on a cliché: one game at a time.

"Our focus level has to be at an all-time high," center Reggie Johnson told the Miami Herald. "Every team looks at us as a trap game, because we're undefeated. Coach L makes sure we take one game at a time. We will not look ahead. He won't let us."

The Hurricanes have proven capable of handling the new attention -- they are ranked No. 8, tying their highest AP ranking ever, even though no current player has been to the NCAA tournament -- while avoiding slips. A prime example: The way the Hurricanes have performed in the games after the big games, such as Tuesday's Boston College victory after a big win at N.C. State.

It helps that Larranaga's players, who were far off the college hoops radar after losing their second game of the year to Florida Gulf Coast, don't have their heads in the clouds. With all five starters returning from last season -- four of them seniors now -- it's a savvy and experienced group. The Hurricanes have two 22-year-olds, one 23-year-old and one 24-year old in the starting lineup, plus a pretty talented sophomore in Shane Larkin, the son of Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin.

At the same time, Larranaga tries to help players find balance between staying focused and enjoying the success that has come so rarely to Coral Gables. The Hurricanes, seldom a hot ticket, sold out their Duke and Florida State games and have already sold out Saturday's rematch with North Carolina. After the N.C. State game, students actually greeted the team bus as it pulled into the arena.

"I think that's very, very special," Larranaga said to Miami media. "My message to the team was just appreciate this and don't just go run by them and go into the locker room. Take pictures, shake hands, high-five them and thank them for coming out."

SHORT TAKES

• With the overall undefeated teams falling long ago, the teams that remain undefeated in conference play are getting all the attention. But in the spirit of this unpredictable season, nothing is what it's expected to be. Florida -- online analyst Ken Pomeroy's favorite to finish without a conference loss in the weak SEC -- got trounced by Arkansas on Tuesday. After losses this week by formerly perfect-in-conference-play Belmont and Southern Miss, the others remaining in a list compiled by CBS Sports: North Carolina Central (8-0 MEAC), Norfolk State (9-0 MEAC), Gonzaga (9-0 West Coast), Akron (9-0 MAC), Miami (Fla.) (9-0 ACC), Montana (13-0 Big Sky), Louisiana Tech (11-0 WAC) and Memphis (8-0 Conference USA).

• One Kansas state senator has taken it upon himself to instigate a new old-fashioned rivalry, whether the teams involved like it or not. Sen. Michael O'Donnell, R-Wichita, introduced a bill that would require Kansas and Wichita State to play each other in alternating games between the locations every other year. Initially, O'Donnell's proposal would have stripped the schools of state funding if they refused, an aspect on which he later softened -- stating he didn't want to seem "punitive" -- while adding Kansas State into the mix. "I think it would really benefit Wichita," he told the Wichita Eagle. "I could see thousands of people coming out. I think this is a win-win." So far, however, Kansas coach Bill Self is not on board.

• With all of the court-storming that has occurred in the past month -- more than a dozen, USA Today's Nicole Auerbach counts -- it's no wonder it's become a topic of conversation, especially with such strange rushings such as Wake Forest, after beating then-No. 19 North Carolina State. Some -- such as Sports Illustrated's Seth Davis -- have criticized the practice, saying it can shake a team's focus for the ensuing game or likening it to a mosh pit that has the potential to be dangerous. But others explain that showing such passion is often present is good for the sport and likely to continue so long as leagues don't implement rules (and fines) against the practice, as the SEC has.

BIG TEN POWER POLL

1. Michigan: This could be a back-and-forth battle with the Hoosiers all year.

2. Indiana: Until the final four minutes of Thursday's loss to the Illini, the Hoosiers were still doing everything right.

3. Michigan State: One thing we learned Wednesday in a victory over the Gophers: These Spartans are tough.

4. Ohio State: How much better is this offense looking since the start of the season? It's significant.

5. Wisconsin: The Badgers still haven't had a "bad" Big Ten loss, if you consider that playing at Iowa is tough.

6. Illinois: This is why this is a power poll and not a records poll. The Illini, 3-7 in conference play, showed enough fight on Thursday to warrant it.

7. Minnesota: After five losses in seven games, the Gophers are once again in need of a spark.

8. Iowa: I know the Boilermakers beat them, but the Hawkeyes have been so much more competitive in their losses. They are better than their 3-7 league mark indicates.

9. Purdue: Hard to believe the Boilermakers have the same record (5-5) as Minnesota in conference play.

10. Northwestern: The Wildcats have certainly had some interesting wins, anyway.

11. Nebraska: A six-point loss to Ohio State shows a hint of some real potential.

12. Penn State: It's about time to start looking ahead to next year.

 

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