published Tuesday, March 5th, 2013

Led by Larkin, Miami magical

Miami's Shane Larkin (0) and Rion Brown (15) react late in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Duke in Durham, N.C.
Miami's Shane Larkin (0) and Rion Brown (15) react late in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Duke in Durham, N.C.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Logic always sided with University of Miami point guard Shane Larkin spending his winters in south Florida.

It's just that most people expected the son of Hall of Fame baseball player Barry Larkin to gain national attention on a spring-training baseball diamond before a college basketball court.

Especially when Barry Larkin's fellow Cincinnati Reds great Tony Perez once said of Shane: "If I had his swing, I might be pretty good."

Unfortunately for major league baseball, a youth league baseball coach once criticized a 7-year-old Larkin's Perez-esque leg kick, which so demoralized the youngster that he gave up the sport on the spot.

"A death blow," the elder Larkin has since half-joked.

Instead, his son's long-ago decision to focus on hoops instead of home runs has become a death blow for the rest of the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball coaches this season. The nationally sixth-ranked Hurricanes are firmly atop the league standings (14-2 and 23-5 overall) heading into the final week of the regular season.

"Larkin is a great player, by far the best guard in the league," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said Saturday after watching Larkin score 25 points, hand out four assists and make off with four steals in a 79-76 loss to the host Blue Devils.

"He's magical out there. He has such poise."

Boston College coach Steve Donahue went further after twice falling to the Hurricanes: "[Larkin's] the key to their team. He drives it, kicks it; if you go under the screen, he hits it. He creates so much on the defensive end, getting steals and easy baskets."

Added Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton, whose Seminoles also have been swept by the 'Canes: "His speed, quickness and ability to make decisions are phenomenal for a sophomore guard."

Miami's season-long statistics support their praise. Larkin leads the 'Canes in scoring (13.8 ppg), assists (4.3), steals (2.0) and minutes played (36.2). He's hitting 42 percent of his 3-pointers and 73 percent of his free throws.

"When we recruited Shane we felt like he was going to be a great college player," second-year Miami coach Jim Larranaga said last weekend. "He has all the ingredients you want in a point guard, and he just loves to win."

Miami never has won like this. The 'Canes have reached the NCAA tournament just six times previously, reaching the Sweet 16 but once (2000).

But with six seniors and three physical post players who all stand 6-foot-10 or taller, this team is built for success, having swept North Carolina, split with Duke and outlasted North Carolina State on the road.

"We didn't have any answers," Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said after an 87-61 shelling at Miami earlier this winter. "They can shoot it outside, score it inside, and they blocked two of our dunks. You don't see that happen very often."

The leader of the block party is 6-10 senior Julian Gamble, who swats away 1.8 shots a game. Senior Kenny Kadji blocks 1.3 a game while backing up Larkin with 13.1 points and 6.5 rebounds.

Then there's 6-10, 292-pound senior Reggie Johnson, who hauls in nearly eight rebounds a game.

"You just don't see teams with this kind of experience anymore," ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said recently. "Throw in a point guard as talented as Larkin, and it's easy to see this team reaching the Final Four."

Despite sweeping North Carolina and nearly sweeping Duke, the Hurricanes have had their hiccups this season, including a 15-point road loss at Wake Forest and an early-season 12-point loss at Florida Gulf Coast.

Yet they also hold a two-game lead over Duke with two to play heading into Wednesday night's visit from Georgia Tech.

And while Barry Larkin still attempts to talk his son into returning to baseball, he's also both proud and thrilled by Shane's success on the hardwood.

"Shane used to always be known as my son," the elder Larkin told ESPN last week. "Now I'm known as Shane's father, and I couldn't be happier about that."

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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