Miami is still a football school.
A decade as the darling of the NIT, while the school’s football program continued its reign with national brand appeal, didn’t help to change the status quo.
In the last seven years under now-Missouri head coach Frank Haith, it seemed the Hurricanes were the perennial bubble team that ended up on the outside, looking in, only making the Big Dance once, to go along with four NIT appearances.
On Tuesday night, under new head coach Jim Larranaga, Miami appeared to be the same fringe-NCAA tournament, never-quite-makes-it, Ralph Nader, it’s-ok-because-we-know-you’re-a-football-school-anyway team in their 76-65 loss to Purdue.
Senior guard Malcolm Grant had 16 points for the Hurricanes (4-2), but Miami shot 39 percent from the field as a team, while allowing Purdue to shoot at a 55 percent clip. Robbie Hummel added 17 points for the Boilermakers (7-1).
Jim Larranaga replaced Haith in April, coming from a George Mason program that he headed for 14 seasons, including the magical 2005-2006 run to the Final Four.
As opposed to Haith’s experience as a high-major assistant, prior to his Miami, Larranga comes with proven head coaching success at mid-majors George Mason and Bowling Green.
But after his hiring, there was little in the way of good news.
In July, 6-10, 303-pound center and the team’s leading rebounder Reggie Johnson tore cartilage in his right knee during a pick-up basketball game. He underwent surgery and is continuing to recover, with hopes that he will return in January.
Then the bombshell.
An extensive report from Yahoo! Sports detailed the alleged actions of Miami booster and convicted Ponzi schemer Nevin Shapiro, who said he provided thousands of impermissible benefits to university athletes, including ties to the basketball program during the 2000s.
Here was a coach, Larranaga, who had spent those years building a Cinderella program at George Mason with a reputation cleaner than any in college basketball, finally getting his shot at a high-major job, and he walks into this.
“I would have loved for it to have been smoother, for the circumstances to have been a little more comfortable for me and my family,” Larranaga told the Washington Post in October. “It got more complicated than I would have liked.”
Larranaga was immediately confronted with a reality of college basketball’s upper tier. Up here, there’s more glamour and bigger paychecks, but a lot higher risk than in Fairfax County and the CAA.
“For the players, it’s business as usual,” Larranaga said of the NCAA situation, in that same interview. “For the coaching staff and I, it’s a little more complicated. I get questions all the time, and quite frankly, I just don’t have any answers now. It’s definitely impacted our recruiting. . . . Are some students eliminating us because of concerns? The answer to that is yes.”
But they are starting to move on.
In the early signing period, Larranaga signed the first two official recruits of his era, 6-11 center Tonye Jekiri and sharpshooting New York guard Melvin Johnson.
They also got a boost when the NCAA granted DePaul transfer Shane Larkin a waiver, allowing him to play in 2011 without having to sit out a season.
Larkin is a quick, 5-11 point guard who also happens to be the son of former Cincinnati Reds shortstop Barry Larkin.
The Hurricanes were picked to finish fifth in the ACC in this year’s preseason media poll, which will likely put them in a familiar situation, come tournament time.
Until Reggie Johnson returns, Miami is small, with only one true big man in their regular rotation. That means nearly half of the scoring has fallen to the backcourt, onto the shoulders of guards Malcolm Grant and Durand Scott.
And it doesn’t seem to be enough.
The Hurricanes average just over 67 points per game, putting them at 202nd in the nation in that category. Tuesday night’s performance saw a five-minute scoring drought in the first half, a time when Miami missed seven straight shots from the field.
Against higher-powered ACC opponents like North Carolina and Duke, and coming down the stretch in March, long periods with no offensive production could be the thing that sinks the ‘Canes.
In the long run, the pending NCAA investigation could scare away the blue-chip recruits that would push Miami over the top. If sanctions are handed down, the situation becomes even more difficult.
For as much as Jim Larranaga will fight to build this program, the odds may be stacked against him, especially with schools like NC State and Maryland making power moves on the recruiting trail in 2012 and beyond.
There may only be room enough for one prominent basketball team in South Beach.