Larranaga optimistic No. 7 Hurricanes will finish strong

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (AP) Miami Hurricanes coach Jim Larranaga says he hasn't been around the game long enough to anticipate how a team will play in March.

He's only in his 32nd season as a head coach.

''I'm going to have to do this 20 or 30 more years before I get a feel,'' Larranaga said with a smile Monday.

It's an unpredictable business, but Larranaga does have a good feeling about this year's Hurricanes. Consecutive wins last week over ranked teams propelled them to a season-high No. 7 in this week's poll, and allowed them to forge a tie with No. 8 North Carolina atop the Atlantic Coast Conference.

The Tar Heels moved back in front by half a game Monday night when they beat Syracuse 75-70. But if the Hurricanes (23-5, 12-4 ACC) win on the road in their final two regular-season games at Notre Dame on Wednesday and at Virginia Tech on Saturday, they would be assured of at least a share of their second league title in four years.

And Larranaga said his balanced, experienced team has the talent to win the national championship.

''There is that potential,'' he said. ''The reason I say that is because right now there's nobody ahead of us. It's not like I look around and there are five or 10 teams much better than us. We think we're in the strongest league in the country, and yet in a week we could be regular-season champions.''

One reason for Larranaga's optimism is that he considers guard play critical in March. The Hurricanes' backcourt includes leading scorer Sheldon McClellan and Angel Rodriguez, the catalyst in their comeback victory Saturday over Louisville.

The Hurricanes remain in a come-from-behind frame of mind.

''We're still the chasers,'' forward Kamari Murphy said. ''We still call ourselves that. We have a lot of self-motivation. We've got to finish strong.''

Murphy and teammate Davon Reed smiled when informed they had climbed five spots in the latest poll and were back in the Top 10 for the first time since midseason.

''I believe we lost the last time we were in the top 10,'' Reed said. ''It would be nice to be there for two weeks instead of one.''

The Hurricanes briefly climbed to eighth in mid-January and promptly endured back-to-back losses for the only time this season - at Virginia and at Clemson.

They've gone 10-2 since.

''We're feeling very good,'' Reed said. ''Things are clicking at the right time. We're definitely hitting our stride right now. Everybody is very confident and playing very well together.''

Miami will play this week without sixth man Ja'Quan Newton, who is serving a three-game suspension for a violation of team rules.

''We don't replace him. We just tell Angel to play a lot more minutes,'' Larranaga said. ''Ja'Quan just had a fantastic regular season. I believe he should win the ACC sixth man of the year award.''

Newton will be back for the ACC tournament next week. The Hurricanes say they will still be ''the chasers'' then - and even if they reach the Final Four.

''The goal,'' Reed said, ''is to win it all.''

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