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This proved to be a motivator. At a spring team meeting, Larranaga pressed the squad about what they wanted out of the following season. An NCAA tournament appearance was the consensus. Channeling the dedication of his George Mason players, Larranaga replied that the whole team would have to stay on campus all summer for weight and conditioning work.
"Most of the people on the team, we really haven't had success," Kadji says. "Reggie Johnson is a fifth-year senior. Julian Gamble is a sixth-year senior. These people have been through injuries, so we can all relate to each other. We know how hard it's been for each other to get to this point, so I think that brought us closer together."
UM's hot streak hung like a target on the team's back, with each opponent looking to dim the Hurricanes' glow. It happened on the road with a blowout loss to Wake Forest in late February, 80-65. Before that, the Hurricanes occupied the number-two position in the Associated Press poll. Following the loss, the squad fell to number five. Many analysts still predict that UM will go to the NCAA tournament as a first or second seed.
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Last Saturday, UM traveled to Duke for a rematch. With the most obnoxious fan base in sports raining down abuse, the Hurricanes led for most the first half. UM’s defense muzzled Duke’s lineup save for Ryan Kelly, who put up 36 points. Had a buzzer-beating three from UM’s Rion Brown been an inch over, the Hurricanes would have tied the game for overtime.
Despite the loss, the Hurricanes’ close road performance against Duke still won admiration from analysts. Many predict the team will go to the NCAA tournament as a first or second seed, although a poor performance in the ACC tournament could shadow its prospects.
All season, Larranaga has tried to keep his players focused on each upcoming game. The coach, however, is fixated on recruiting.
Besides Larkin, only one other underclassman sees significant playing time on the current squad. Regardless of the 2012-13 team's fate, he'll have to rebuild the entire program after March.
And standing in the way of arming up with new talent is the ongoing NCAA investigation into UM's athletic program.
Word about corruption in UM's football and basketball programs hadn't surfaced when Larranaga accepted the position in spring 2011. But in August 2011, Yahoo! Sports published a damning report recounting the allegations of former UM booster Nevin Shapiro. Serving 20 years in federal prison for his part in a Ponzi scheme, Shapiro detailed a decade of rule violations, including cash payments, nightclub and restaurant trips, and travel expenses.
Larranaga first heard about the allegations a day before the report was published. "My initial thought was this is bad timing for recruiting." The next week, UM's top five basketball recruits all eliminated the school from consideration.
The UM football program is the main culprit in the Shapiro allegations, although the basketball program is involved. The convicted con man claims he passed along $10,000 to a Frank Haith assistant to secure recruit DeQuan Jones for the program in 2008 — a payment the head coach allegedly knew about. The Yahoo! report also asserted that Haith assistant coaches had paid travel expenses for family members of two of Larranaga's players — Johnson and Durand Scott. The university benched both voluntarily for a time. Later, the school determined that the players didn't know about the travel at the time.
A program with a spotty record seems a complete mismatch with Larranaga, still very much the straight-arrow Catholic-school grinder. But he backs away from commenting on what went on before he took over at UM. "Whoever was here and what they did — no one knows what decisions someone else makes, what the reasons are," he explains. "It's not my place to pass judgment."
A week before the Wake loss, the NCAA delivered the official notice of allegations, bashing the school for a "lack of institutional control." Two former basketball assistants were among those charged; Haith faces a lesser charge. UM has promised to fight the sanctions.
It's generally assumed that when the NCAA officially swings, the UM football program will take a serious bruising. But there's been no sign of what awaits Larranaga. His iPhone is constantly buzzing with text messages from high school talent with words of encouragement about the current Hurricanes.
They also have tough questions. "Recruits want to know, 'How will it impact the program when I'm there?' " he says. "And there's no answer to that. We don't know."