The University of Miami’s rise in the national college basketball polls over the last month could be considered “meteoric” considering that as recently as Jan. 7 the Hurricanes weren’t even among the teams at the bottom of the listings under the category “Others Receiving Votes.”
Over the last month, however, they have gone from obscurity to the No. 25 spot on Jan. 21 to No. 14 to No. 8 and, finally on Monday, to the No. 3 spot in the Associated Poll behind No. 1 Indiana and Duke.
It is, of course, the highest ranking ever for the Hurricanes, who also received 17 first-place votes, their first since the 1960 season. They are ranked No. 4 behind Duke, Indiana, and Gonzaga in the USA Today/ESPN poll with five first-place votes following Saturday’s 26-point whipping of North Carolina.
An 11-game winning streak, spotless 10-0 Atlantic Conference record, and 19-3 overall record playing a schedule that is No. 1 in toughness in the country according to RPI numbers will do that for a team.
What really puts what the program has accomplished this season into perspective, however, is a look back at where it has come from.
“I was on the team when we were last in the conference before we had that good run in the ACC tournament,” said senior Julian Gamble, who is in his sixth season at Miami after gaining an extra year of eligibility after missing all of last season because of a knee injury. “Being at the top of it now, it’s kind of a surreal feeling that’s hard to describe.”
Reggie Johnson is another senior who is in his fifth year at Miami after redshirting as a freshman in 2008-09. In the three years leading into this season, he played for teams that were 19-29 in the ACC and only 10-22 in the first two years.
“I never really thought Miami could be a Top 10 program,” Johnson said. “I know that the team coming into this year we were coming in to compete and take down some of the big dogs, the so-called Top 10 teams coming tournament time.
“But I didn’t think we would be right here in February.”
As recently as the 2009-10 season, the Hurricanes finished last in the ACC with a 4-12 record and missed out on a bid to any national postseason tournament despite winning two games in the ACC tourney to get to the 20-win level.
In 2010-11, they were 6-10 in the conference, 18-14 overall, and made it to the NIT, where they won two games at home before losing at Alabama.
Last season they were 9-7 in the conference, their most wins ever in the ACC, and 19-12 overall after splitting two games in the ACC tourney, but once again the NCAA Selection Committee passed on them when it gave out at-large bids.
That’s not likely to be repeated this March.
The league-leading Hurricanes have eight games remaining, all in league play, and can clinch at least a share of the ACC’s regular-season title and possibly earn the No. 1 seed in the conference tourney by winning six of them because their closest challenger, Duke, already has two losses.
The Hurricanes beat the Blue Devils 90-63 in Coral Gables on Jan. 23 and have a rematch in Durham on March 2.
First, though, for Miami is a rematch with Florida State in Tallahassee Wednesday night. Even though they beat the Seminoles handily, 71-47, on Jan. 27, the Hurricanes aren’t likely to be looking past them to upcoming games at Clemson and against Virginia.
Coach Jim Larranaga is leaning on his experience as an assistant under Terry Holland at Virginia when the Cavaliers were ranked No. 1 for a good portion of four years with Ralph Sampson to help his players keep their minds right.
“He handled it with class,” Larranaga said of Holland, “and he handled it with a great deal of focus on not the media but on the team and working with the players in getting them ready for the next opponent.”
The most important thing he learned from Holland, Larranaga said, “is you’re going to get everybody’s best shot and there’s no sneaking up on anybody.
“The league is so good and so deep and there’s so much parity in college basketball anybody can beat anybody.
“Just look at our record. We lost to Florida Gulf Coast and Indiana State, two very good basketball teams, by the way. When we lost to them everybody thought, ‘OK, Miami is not going to be very good this year.’
“And I looked at it and said, ‘OK, we’ve learned some very valuable lessons in those two losses. Let’s see if we can put that information to good use.’ ”
Safe to say the ’Canes have done that.