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The future is bright: Jim Larranaga's Miami Hurricanes will be young and small but talented

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CORAL GABLES, Florida — When Tonye Jekiri kicks the ball around with the University of Miami women's soccer team, he makes an impact, thanks to his size-16 feet.

Soccer is Jekiri's first love and the sport he played growing up in Nigeria. He moved to Florida in 2010 to begin a basketball career, and now he's a 6-foot-11 starting center for the Miami Hurricanes.

Jekiri said his passion for hoops grew toward the end of last season as his play started to improve.

"It didn't come natural, because I was a soccer player," Jekiri said. "Every day I would go home and want to know what soccer game was on TV. But now I want to put a basketball game on. I want to take this game further after college."

Coach Jim Larranaga is counting on Jekiri to become an offensive force for the Hurricanes, who are inexperienced but face a much brighter future than a year ago, when they went 7-11 in the Atlantic Coast Conference and 17-16 overall.

PHOTO: In this Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014, photo, Miami's  Tonye Jekiri responds to a question during NCAA college basketball media day, in Coral Gables, Fla. Soccer is Jekiri's first love and the sport he played growing up in Nigeria. He moved to Florida in 2010 to begin a basketball career and now he's a 6-foot-11 starting center for the Miami Hurricanes. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
In this Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014, photo, Miami's Tonye Jekiri responds to a question during NCAA college basketball media day, in Coral Gables, Fla. Soccer is Jekiri's first love and the sport he played growing up in Nigeria. He moved to Florida in 2010 to begin a basketball career and now he's a 6-foot-11 starting center for the Miami Hurricanes. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)


Jekiri's progress is among the things to watch this year with Miami.

CENTER OF ATTENTION: Jekiri averaged 4.2 points per game, 5.5 rebounds and 21 minutes per game last season. Partly out of necessity, Larranaga expects a lot more from the redshirt junior. "Tonye needs to step up in every category," Larranaga said. "He is such a vital part of this team this year. We expect him to be a double-double guy. Anything less than that, and he can expect me to not be happy." That's a tall order for a player with one double-double in his career. Jekiri was the backup to the backup center on the 2012-13 team that won the ACC title. Last year he started 16 of 33 games, his minutes often limited because of foul trouble. But Jekiri said Larranaga's faith in him is contagious. "Last year my offense was not there," Jekiri said. "The confidence is there, and I now have more passion for the game. Everything has clicked."

COMING UP SHORT: While the Hurricanes will be young, they're small, too. Six of their top players are guards, and Jekiri is the only forward or center who has played previously for Miami. Larranaga says he might start four guards, and 6-5 freshman James Palmer could be forced to play power forward. "We could have a guy 6-5 guarding someone 6-10," Larranaga said. Of the 12 players on the roster, only three have worn a Hurricanes uniform before. One of the three — 6-6 Davon Reed — will miss much of the season with an injury. "We've got some of the most unusual circumstances we've ever seen," said Larranaga, who is entering his 31st year as a college coach.

FLOOR LEADER: The most experienced player is point guard Angel Rodriguez, who helped Kansas State win a share of the Big 12 title in 2013. The junior transferred and sat out last season because he wanted to be closer to his family in Puerto Rico. Rodriguez says he'll enjoy mentoring the Hurricanes' young players. "The one thing every freshman has to prove is that you're able to guard your opponent," Rodriguez says. "In the ACC, you're going to face lottery picks. Are you able to guard them? If you are, you're going to have a big year. If you don't, you've got to get it right."

PREACHING DEFENSE: The Hurricanes struggled to score last year but ranked 11th in the nation in defense, allowing only 59.5 points per game. That doesn't necessarily mean Miami will be good on defense again, Larranaga said. "Every year you start over," he said. "It's not like you begin where you ended. Every year it's washed away. They've forgotten all the fundamentals and you start from scratch."

LOOKING AHEAD: Last season required a reboot for the program after six seniors from the ACC title team departed. The outlook is now much rosier, Larranaga said. "The difference between last year and this year is next year," he said. In other words, he anticipates this group of players to blossom into a good team, although it might not happen until late 2015. "Could we see it this year? Yes, but not early," Larranaga said. "Should we see it next year? Yes, and early. All the pieces are in place."

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