It's more threat than question, and it hangs over every major college sport (non-ice division):
What happens when the University of Miami gets its act together?
Few schools can match the U's socio-geographic inheritances: sunshine, private-school money, a foothold in athlete-rich South Florida and the name recognition that comes with years of football dominance.
For years, Miami has struggled to turn this endowment into any sort of lasting basketball success.
Prior to 2012-13, the Hurricanes had finished just four seasons ranked in the AP top 25, never once advancing past the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA tournament. Among current ACC schools, only Miami (48) and Virginia Tech (49) have spent less than 100 weeks in the AP poll.
The U's most successful three-year stretch came between 1962 and 1965, when coach Bruce Hale and star forward Rick Barry led the Hurricanes to an aggregate record of 65-16.
As misfortune would have it, that brief period of dominance was essentially rendered void by a probationary clause that precluded Barry's Hurricanes from the NCAA tournament. After Barry's departure from the NBA, it would be another 34 years before the program registered another 20-win season.
That history of chronic failure is, in some sense, a tribute to what Jim Larranaga has managed to do in his first two seasons as Miami's head coach. Last year, the 'Canes went 20-13 and advanced to the second round of the NIT. This year, they're blowing up the school record book.
The 2012-13 Miami Hurricanes have already notched the school's highest-ever AP ranking (No. 2). With three conference wins in their last four games, they would would tie the program record for victories in a season (25) and clinch Miami's first ever ACC championship (regular season or tournament).
Combine Jim Larranaga's stellar work with the solid foundation laid by former coach Frank Haith, and it's tempting to wonder how the Hurricanes might effect the future balance of power in the ACC.
The most obvious starting point for any discussion like this is recruiting.
Can Miami Recruit the Southeast?
Football may come first in South Florida, but the Sunshine State has plenty of talented prep basketball players.
Traditionally, Miami has had trouble harvesting its local bounty. Over the past five seasons, Florida has produced 21 ESPN 100 recruits, and none of them have signed with Miami.
Billy Donovan's Florida Gators have been a primary beneficiary of Miami's recruiting inefficiencies, but so too have other teams in the ACC.
I went through the last three years of recruiting data on ESPN.com and tracked where the top 50 prospects from the Southeast region opted to attend school. I, then, honed in on the eight ACC schools located in that region—Duke, UNC, NC State, Wake Forest, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Florida State and Miami—to see which ones were doing the best job retaining local talent.
Here's how the numbers broke out.
|School||Number of Recruits in Regional Top 50||Four and Five Star Recruits (In Region)||Three Stars and Under (In Region)|
First, let's throw out Duke, a national program that tends to draw recruits from out of region.
Now re-examine the numbers, and start with Miami.
Over the last three years, as the program has transitioned to a new head coach, the Hurricanes have been a non-factor in regional recruiting. Miami is the only school on the above list to have not landed a single four- or five-star recruit in its own region (although one of its three-stars, Shane Larkin, did pan out pretty nicely).
Now look at the teams who've leaned hard on the local crop to fill out their recruiting classes: Clemson, Georgia Tech, Florida State, NC State and even North Carolina.
All of those schools have been major players on the Southeast recruiting scene, and you would imagine that all of them have indirectly benefited from Miami's inability to compete for those same recruits.
The biggest surprise of all here may be North Carolina. Despite the program's national name, Roy Williams has actually proven a bit narrow in his recruiting tendencies. Since the decade began, 11 of Carolina's 15 recruits have have come from states south of the Mason-Dixon line and east of the Mississippi river.
Over that same period of time, just five of Duke's 13 signed recruits attended high school in what we might call, for lack of a better term, "Dixie."
UNC has survived as a dominant team because it tends to attract the very best players in that region, but a challenge from Miami could disrupt that pattern, either chipping away at North Carolina's dominance or forcing the Tar Heels to court more players in the Midwest, Northeast and beyond.
That kind of movement is more than likely a few years off. For now, schools like Clemson, North Carolina State and Georgia Tech should be wary of any immediate recruiting boost Miami receives in the wake of this tremendous season.
And with the ACC's newest additions—Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Louisville—unlikely to gain a major recruiting foothold in the Southeast, Miami could eventually become a major player in Georgia, Florida and the rest of the Gulf Coast.
The Jim Larranaga Effect
Let's start here: Jim Larranaga is a fantastic basketball coach.
We've known that ever since he took George Mason to the Final Four, but Larranaga's work at Miami puts a stamp on one of the all-time great late-blooming coaching careers.
ESPN the Magazine's Peter Keating did a fascinating piece on Larranaga last year, diving into the coach's innovative understanding, and manipulation, of advanced metrics. Keating demonstrated how Larranaga uses tempo-free stats to dictate team strategy and how he toys with the basic flaws in RPI to maximize Miami's chance of making the NCAA tournament.
But for all of Larranaga's successes, he's rarely landed blue-chip recruits. That, however, may be changing. Keating writes:
"Larranaga is stepping into a program that has underachieved in recent years but never lacked for big men. This year, the 'Canes' effective height is 2.8 inches above average, giving them the 23rd-tallest inside presence in the country. Now he gets to see who else he can bring aboard, and letting Larranaga pitch Miami is like giving Billy Beane the keys to the Yankees' vault."
The Beane metaphor strikes at the core of what makes Larranaga so dangerous. Long a master at identifying overlooked recruits, the 63-year-old Bronx native can now turn his discerning eye to a higher echelon of players. He's already landed one three-star gem in point guard Shane Larkin, and freshman seven-footer Tonye Jekiri, a native of nearby Hialeah, looks like an offensive-rebounding menace in the making.
In a less tangible sense, Larranaga imbues Miami basketball with a much-needed sense of permanence. For years, Miami has been a stepping-stone program for young coaches like Leonard Hamilton and Frank Haith.
But Larranaga has already made his name, at George Mason and elsewhere. For him, Miami is the destination.
That changes the way recruits look at the Hurricanes, and it changes the way locals view the team. Larranaga is here to build something lasting, not for a quick fix and jump to the next tier.
And that, perhaps more than anything, is what makes him such a threat to the ACC's power players. For the first time in a long time, Miami has a coach that wants to be at Miami.
What Could Go Wrong?
For starters, it's only been one season.
Rather than list all the college basketball program that have peaked for a year or two only to see that momentum stifled by subsequent regression, let's say this:
One season in the AP top 10 does not a blueblood make.
It's also not a particularly convenient year for Miami's breakout season, not with the NCAA still investigating prior wrongdoing by the school's athletic department. So far the university's self-imposed sanctions have been limited to the football program, but that doesn't mean the NCAA won't slap the basketball team with future penalties.
It's also worth noting that Larranga is 63 years old—not ancient (Roy Williams is 62, Coach K, 66), but also not ideal for a coach trying to build his program into a long-term winner. We know what Larranaga can do for Miami in the short term, but can he move the Hurricanes into that coveted media space where their year-in, year-out contention is taken as a given?
The Big Picture
In the immediate aftermath of this historic campaign, Miami should be well-positioned to recruit the classes of 2014 and '15. I'd be shocked if the Hurricanes don't make immediate inroads in the Southeast, starting with the Miami area and working their way up to Greater Atlanta.
The future after that is anybody's guess.
Miami basketball has always enjoyed significant structural advantages based on its location and brand. Now finally it has a team worthy of those genetics—and the potential of future greatness on its horizon.
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