Miami Hurricanes coach Jim Larranaga sounded noticeably hoarse on the phone Monday, the sweetest sore throat possible, well-earned the night before.
Hardly anybody believed his No. 10-seeded Canes would beat No. 2 Auburn Sunday night in the Midwest Region to reach the men’s NCAA Tournament Sweet 16. Larranaga had an idea, though. He imagined the bedlam of the postgame lockerroom celebration enough to plan for it.
“I brought a change of shirt and a pullover so if we were fortunate enough to win and I was drenched, I’d be ready,” he said, with a rasp of a chuckle. “I believe in these guys so much.”
Nobody can out-Cinderella the 15th-seeded Saint Peter’s Peacocks as the surprise of the last 16 teams standing among the 68 that began March Madness.
Canes have a solid case, though.
Larranaga saw UM in the Sweet 16 twice previously in his time in Coral Gables, in 2013 and ’16, but this feels so different.
“The 2013 team [a No. 2 seed] was loaded from start to finish, ”he said. “We ran through the conference, won 14 ACC games in a row. Beat Duke by 27, Carolina by 26 and were ranked as high as No. 2 in the country. If Shane Larkin hadn’t gotten food poisoning along with a couple up – that kept us from getting to the Final Four. “
His ’16 team narrowly missed winning the ACC regular season title, had been as high as No. 7 in the polls, won 27 games and was a No. 3 seed.
This team? No such expectations. At least on the outside.
Though 25-10 right now, these Canes have not been ranked in the Top 25 all season – and only briefly were even among those “also receiving votes” early in the season. What had seemed an oversight by voters now feels more like negligent disrespect.
Catching everybody else by surprise makes the 2022 Hurricanes seem more to Larranaga like the 2006 George Mason team he coached into the Final Four. It was a team 16-13 the season before, and the school’s first NCAA appearance in five years.
“Yes it does remind me of that in many ways,“ he said. “That team had some outstanding senior leadership, too.”
These Canes might be a remedy for those out there who still don’t quite “get” March Madness, or the euphoria around it. The agnostics and detached observers who don’t have an alma mater in the hunt or filled-out brackets to scrutinize.
See, the Canes rise from the deep shadow of a football school, and offer up a team that is the antithesis of what college basketball became, to the disappointment of many.
There are no McDonald’s All-America hotshots on this UM roster, nobody on NBA teams’ draft radar.
Larranaga has no one-and-done freshmen so good they’ll be bolting for the pros after one season. Not even a two-and-flew sophomore of that stature.
Instead, Larranaga has an older roster (ancient by college hoops standards) that includes four sixth-year seniors. Some NBA teams can put five on the floor younger on average than UM. Imagine: A college basketball team full of players there for college basketball, not the stepping stone. It’s a revolution!
“My best player’s 18, their best player’s 25,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl was needling Miami the other day.
That was right before Miami clobbered the No. 2 seed Tigers 79-61 to reach this Friday’s Sweet 16 round in Chicago.
Pearl was almost accurate. Miami does have a player who’s 25. But two of its best players (Kameron McGusty and Charlie Moore), are “only” 24. A third indispensable player, Isiah Wong is a pup at 21. None is bigger than 6-5.
This is in the context of a sport now heavily reliant on youth and in many causes, like Auburn, size. Twenty-two of the projected NBA first round draft picks this summer are freshmen (14) or sophomore (eight). That includes Auburn’s 6-10 freshman Jabari Smith, pegged the No. 2 overall pick, and 7-1 sophomore Walker Kessler.
UM’s smaller, relentless defensive bottled ’em both up. Smith scored 10 points on 3-for-16 shooting. Canes got Kessler in early foul trouble and he scored two points on 0-for-6 shooting.
“In the second half, we were everywhere,” Larranaga said.
Nothing about these Canes is the usual.
They are small and guard-heavy. No behemoths dominating in the paint. No over-reliance on 3-point baskets.
“The Little Engine That Could,” a 1930s-era American folktale that teaches children the power of optimism and effort, might have found its corollary in these ’22 Canes: “The Little Team That Could.”
It’s a sum-greater-than-the parts situation. For me that’s a testament to Larranaga and his adaptability.
“Our players have been able to figure it out themselves,” the coach says. “This team is very different. Developed its own style of offense and defense. We have three new starters this season, but everything came together. “
The coach himself is another reason to like these Canes. At 72, he’s also the underdog you root for.
UM had three straight losing seasons before this one, including 10-17 last year, the school’s worst since 1994. There was fan talk on social media it was time for the program to move on on.
But here came the resurgence, and Larranaga just earned a two-year contract extension.
Now Miami is one win from advancing further in the NCAA Tournament than at any time in the program’s 60-year history: the Elite Eight.
It happens Friday night if UM can beat another upstart, No. 11-seed Iowa State, the Canes a negligible 1 1/2-point favorite. Iowa State rides its own fate-kissed, Cinderella kind of ride, after going 2-22 (!) One season ago.
The winner of that game will face a Herculean hurdle, likely No. 1 seed Kansas, to reach the Final Four. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
“You dream of making a run in the tournament,” said McGusty, “and this is the start to our run.”
The key words there? The start.
Miami has vanquished USC and Auburn, now Iowa State awaits.
It will be just past midnight Friday when we know if the Canes have made history by reaching the Elite Eight.
When we know if Jim Larranaga has brought another change of clothes, and whether he’ll need them.
This story was originally published March 21, 2022 12:49 PM.