By Michael E. Miller
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By Sabrina Rodriguez
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By Luther Campbell
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Although the Patriots lost their next game against eventual tournament champion Florida, Larranaga had been catapulted into the upper ranks of college coaches.
It's February 13 at the FSU game with 18:60 left on the clock in the second half, and Larranaga's face remains pinched in a scowl as he watches the Hurricanes fight to pull momentum away from the Seminoles.
The Hurricanes are holding off their cross-state rivals 38-31. UM point guard Larkin's pass finds Kadji open out beyond the curve of the three-point line. The forward bends down with the ball in both hands, eyeing his teammates as they tangle with coverage.
Usually spot-on from the field, Kadji and other Hurricane long-ballers have been grounded all game by aggressive pressure. Soon Kadji's man is moving in; after a beat, the forward jackknifes, launching the ball over a swinging arm as he tumbles backward. The shot is good.
But with ten minutes left on the clock, the Seminoles have evened the score. "Miami is on upset alert now," ESPN's O'Brien shouts over the crowd, sound going tidal in the background. Despite the seesawing score, the Hurricanes remain poised. Larranaga throws his arms as if he's conducting traffic from the sidelines, spotlighting open spaces and lanes. Suddenly the Hurricanes' offensive runs begin clicking. Larkin goes airborne on a pair of layups before knocking in a three to put Miami up 68-56. By the time the game buzzes to a finish, the score is 78-64.
Those last minutes in Tallahassee showcased UM's ability to lock down control. Big shots from Kadji were critical.
By all accounts, Kadji is playing the best basketball of his life. By midseason, he'll average 12.6 points a game, shooting .625 from the field and hitting one of every three tosses in three-point territory.
The stats are particularly surprising given that Kadji's four-year run has included a transfer, surgery, and coaching changes. Like almost all the seniors Larranaga inherited when he took the Miami job in 2011, Kadji came with a last-chance mentality that played well with the coach's idiosyncratic style.
Born in Cameroon, Kadji grew up bouncing among Africa, France, and Florida. His basketball odyssey began auspiciously in 2001. On vacation in Miami, Kadji and his mother were shopping in Coconut Grove when they spotted the Miami Heat's Alonzo Mourning on the sidewalk by the GreenStreet Cafe. The 13-year-old always carried an autograph book at the time, and he approached the NBA star. Looking over the height and hands of the kid before him, Mourning told Kadji's mother her son should play basketball.
"It always makes me smile," Kadji says, referring to the story.
The Kadjis took the advice seriously. They enrolled their son in IMG Academy in Bradenton, a sports mecca that his younger brother, Oliver, was also attending, as a soccer player. Kadji arrived on campus as a six-foot-five high school junior with a natural gift. By his senior year, he averaged 28 points, 12 rebounds, and four blocked shots per game. Both rivals.com and scout.com listed Kadji as the fifth-ranked center in the class of 2008 nationwide.
"Kenny always loved to play; he always loved to be in the gym," says Dan Barto, a coach at IMG. "In high school, he obviously blocked a lot of shots, and he was a ferocious dunker."
His high school and Amateur Athletic Union performance with the Florida Rams were enough to get Kadji a scholarship at the University of Florida in fall 2008. But that was the year after the Gators had won the national championship, and the team was strong. His minutes were low. As a sophomore, he played only eight games before requiring back surgery. "At Florida, I really expected to contribute right away and play and help the team," he recalls now. "Obviously, it didn't turn out how I wanted it to be."
Kadji decided to transfer to UM, then coached by Frank Haith. He redshirted his first season in Miami. The two years of inactivity shot a hole through his confidence, and he returned to IMG to basically relearn his skills. Then Haith left in April 2011 for the University of Missouri.
When Larranaga took over the position, Kadji had no idea what to expect. "It was my last chance," he says. "I didn't want to be in a bad situation again."
The 2011-12 Hurricane team under Larranaga went 20-13 as the new coach felt out his players. In addition to Kadji, there were two other big men, but both struggled: Six-foot-ten center Julian Gamble sat out the season after tearing his ACL, and Reggie Johnson came back slowly from knee surgery. The Hurricanes finished tied for fourth in the ACC.
"We've come from a long way," Johnson says. "It was depressing to play at home. I hated playing at home. When I came here and saw an empty gym, there's nothing to play for. You play to win, but the crowd ain't behind you. But when you go to Duke and North Carolina, those fans are standing up, cheering, cussing at us. That's what college basketball is."
The seniors lining up for the 2012-13 schedule were all joined by the fact that the upcoming schedule really would be their last opportunity at the college level. If they didn't do something in Larranaga's second season, their careers were likely done.