Experienced team means high expectations for Miami hoops
CORAL GABLES, Fla. (AP) During the Miami Hurricanes' media day, a photographer asked senior guard Angel Rodriguez to pose by spinning a basketball on his index finger.
''I can't,'' Rodriguez said, drawing laughter. ''I'm serious. I can't.''
Yes, there are limits to the Hurricanes' talent. Even so, they enter the season with experience and expectations like never before.
''The Final Four is the goal,'' senior center Tonye Jekiri said. ''The other teams that make it to the Final Four, they're not better than us in any way.''
Once upon a time, such talk about Hurricanes hoops might have prompted hoots. But coach Jim Larranaga has built a strong program that was in a rebuilding mode after an Atlantic Coast Conference championship in 2013 and now appears poised to bid for another league title - and more.
Here are things to know about Larranaga's fifth Miami team:
LOFTY GOALS: The Hurricanes return 73 percent of their scoring and 78 percent of their rebounding from last year's squad, which went 25-13 overall and 10-8 in the league. They became the first Hurricanes team to play in April, winning seven of their last nine games and finishing as the runner-up to Stanford in the National Invitation Tournament. Jekiri's teammates echo his optimism and ambition. ''We're not settling for anything less than the ACC championship and a Final Four appearance type of goal,'' Rodriguez said. ''With a lot of talent, we can't just waste it. This is the year we could do something very, very special.'' Larranaga said the Hurricanes have Top 10 potential but not the advantages they enjoyed over the rest of the ACC three years ago. ''In 2013 I thought we were the biggest, fastest, strongest team,'' he said. ''We're not separated by that right now. We're in the mix, but we're not above the crowd.''
MOVING ON OUT: Three players transferred out of the program after last season, including starting guard Manu Lecomte, who averaged 7.9 points in the Hurricanes' crowded backcourt. Rodriguez said the departures bring more cohesion. "It probably opened some of the guys' eyes to know what they can do to help the team,'' Rodriguez said. ''To win a lot of games, to win the ACC, you need everybody on the same page.''
NEWCOMER: Kamari Murphy, a 6-8 transfer from Oklahoma State, gives the Hurricanes more versatility up front and shores up their weaknesses. ''Two areas we needed to improve and needed to devote a lot of attention to, Kamari does very well,'' Larranaga said. ''He's an outstanding defender and rebounder, and a terrific athlete. He can guard one through five, and he likes playing defense, and he likes rebounding.'' That's not all. ''He talks nonstop,'' Jekiri said.
HUNGRY UCEDA: Senior forward Ivan Cruz Uceda has lost 20 pounds since last season, and is now 6-10 and 217. He reduced his body fat to 9 percent from 24 percent by working with a strength and conditioning coach, and the results are evident in his play, Larranaga said. ''He is faster, quicker and stronger, he jumps higher, and he's more confident and comfortable,'' Larranaga said. ''He's in for a great senior year.'' Uceda averaged 5.2 points, 3.5 rebounds and 17 minutes last season.
HOME COURT: The Hurricanes hope to play better at home than a year ago. They beat three Top 25 teams on the road, including No. 4 Duke, but lost December home games to Green Bay and Eastern Kentucky. ''Really bad,'' Jekiri said. ''This season we're trying to make sure we don't lose games at home.'' Better crowd support for the attendance-challenged Hurricanes could help. They've set a school record by selling 4,600 season tickets.