CORAL GABLES, Fl. Today is the day it all gets started, the first day of college basketball practice. And to hear senior center Reggie Johnson talk about the University of Miami basketball team, great things are about to happen for the Hurricanes.
Johnson predicts Miami, which returns four starters from last years 20-13 team that narrowly missed the NCAA Tournament, will finish in the top three in the Atlantic Coast Conference, a league that has three teams North Carolina State, Duke and North Carolina in almost everybodys pre-season Top 25.
Were going to win big, said Johnson, who averaged 10.8 points and 7.2 rebounds per game while battling a knee problem last season. Im sorry if I sound cocky or whatever it sounds, but I think were going to win big. Thats my mindset.
And what, exactly, does win big mean?
(NCAA) Tournament and make noise, said Johnson, whose Hurricanes lost in the second round of the NIT last season. I definitely want to make noise in the Tournament, aint no ifs, ands or buts about the Tournament.
Forget the NIT, forget all that. Im telling you right now. Some of you guys probably think, Hes crazy. But Im telling you right now what its going to be for this upcoming season.
Johnson has reason for optimism. UMs four returning starters all have legitimate credentials. And the Canes returns six of their top seven scorers and eight of their top nine rebounders.
Among the returning starters aside from the 6-foot-10 Johnson the Hurricanes welcome back 6-11 senior power forward Kenny Kadji, a third-team All-ACC selection (11.7 ppg, 5.3 rebounds, 1.6 blocks, which ranked sixth in the ACC), senior shooting guard Durand Scott (12.9 ppg), the teams leading scorer and an All-ACC honorable mention, and sophomore point guard Shane Larkin, the son of Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin and an All-ACC Freshmen selection who averaged 7.4 ppg and 2.5 assists.
As for key reserves Miami has junior guard Rion Brown (7.2 ppg) and senior guard Trey McKinney Jones (7.0 ppg), who are both capable scorers. Also back are senior guard Garrius Adams (4.5 ppg, six starts) and junior forward Erik Swoope (2.3 ppg, eight starts). Senior big man Julian Gamble (4.0 ppg, 3.4 rpg), who missed last season with a knee injury, also returns.
Overall, the Hurricanes bring back nine scholarship players from last season, a year in which they finished tied for fourth in the ACC (their best finish since joining the league in 2004), beat Duke at Cameron Indoor Arena for the first time, and defeated ACC champion Florida State.
Coach Jim Larranaga, who took over last year after a successful 14-year run at George Mason that included a 2006 Final Four appearance, didnt totally support Johnsons outlook, but he didnt shoot it down either.
Reggie has been around a long time, Larranaga said, hes a very experienced player, he knows the league very well, so he knows we have a veteran team -- six seniors -- and he has confidence in his teammates as well as himself.
Its good to believe in yourself.
UM opens the season Nov. 9 with a home game against Stetson and soon afterward gets its first major test as it hosts Michigan State (Nov. 28), a pre-season Top 25 on almost every list.
On the down side for the Hurricanes, Scott, a three-year starter, will miss the first three games while serving a NCAA suspension and Adams will miss a few weeks while recovering from last months knee surgery.
Still, Johnson is excited.
Barring injury, he said, were going to be a heckuva team.