It was on the plane ride back from Austin, Texas, to south Florida earlier this week when Miami Hurricanes coach Jim Larranaga got the big, bad news: Their fairy tale Sweet 16 run, Miami’s first in 13 years, was now jeopardized by an injury.
How big? About 6-foot-10 and 300 pounds. How bad? Miami’s leading rebounder, senior center Reggie Johnson, had to have surgery on Tuesday to repair a minor meniscus issue, and will miss their Sweet 16 game against Marquette and their Elite Eight game too, should they make it.
Worse, the injury — suffered at some point during Miami’s third-round victory over Illinois — will hamper Miami in its matchup with a tough, physical, deep Marquette team that has outrebounded its opponents by nearly five boards per game this year.
“It doesn't change our game plan, but Reggie Johnson is our best rebounder at both ends of the court,” Larranaga said Wednesday. “We're going to need other guys to step up and do a great job, especially on the defensive backboards, because Marquette is such a powerful offensive rebounding team.”
Ill-timed injuries are an unfortunate part of March Madness. If North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall hadn’t fractured his wrist last year, maybe North Carolina would have beaten Kansas in the Elite Eight and gone on to challenge Kentucky for the national title. If Kenyon Martin of top-ranked Cincinnati hadn’t broken his leg in the 2000 Conference USA tournament, perhaps Bob Huggins would have a national championship on his impressive resume.
Johnson might not mean as much to Miami as those two players meant to their schools, but he’s a key part of how the Hurricanes work. When he was out for a few weeks earlier this season, Miami suffered two of its six losses. Missing the big man’s 21.3 minutes, 7.0 rebounds and 6.7 points won’t mean as much to this Miami team as will the presence of a brick house menacing Marquette players under the hoop. Especially against a Marquette team that ranks third in this NCAA tournament field in offensive rebounds.
It’ll mean added pressure on two of Miami’s seniors, big men Kenny Kadji and Julian Gamble, to step up. And Gamble himself is dealing with a minor injury, a sprained ankle suffered in the Illinois game.
“Just staying out of foul trouble is important, and to be relentless on the boards and try to be more aggressive and hold the interior down like Reggie did,” Gamble said Wednesday. “To be able to help my guards in, setting screens and doing anything they need me to do . . . (But) our game plan isn't going to change. A lot of guys have to step up. I don't think it's going to come from one guy (to make up for) the amount of production that Reggie was giving us and the presence he has in the paint. We have to do it by committee, every guy doing more than they were before.”
Should the Hurricanes’ chances be felled by injury, it would be an unfortunate ending to what has been a fairytale season in Coral Gables. The ’Canes were ranked as high as second in the country. The basketball team that typically lived in the shadows won an ACC title before the football team that garners the headlines.
But this is a team that’s coached by the inspirational, ever-positive Larranaga. Instead of getting down in the dumps, the ’Canes are using Johnson’s injury as motivation.
“He (Johnson) wants to play again this season,” sophomore point guard Shane Larkin said. “He said he wants to play in the Final Four so that gives us added motivation to get these two wins for him so he can play again this season and showcase his talent on the big stage.”
The stage is a piece of the story of this year’s Hurricanes that might play to their advantage. Thursday’s game against Marquette — and, should they win, an Elite Eight game against Syracuse or Indiana — will be played at the Verizon Center. It’s a place that’s special to Larranaga. When he coached at George Mason, he would often come here to watch the Washington Wizards or the Georgetown Hoyas.
And it also happened to be the place where, in 2006, Larranaga coached his George Mason team to victories in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, becoming the ultimate Final Four Cinderella team. Who says a fairy tale can’t happen twice?
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.