Canes, Cougars Chase "Elite" Status
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It is arguably the sweetest matchup of the NCAA’s regional semifinal smorgasbord.
One of the nation’s top offenses against one of the stingiest defenses. Two of the country’s best backcourts. Nine players who average double figures. Two coaches who have 1,455 wins, 27 Tournament appearances and three Final Fours between them. And two teams accustomed to the Sweet 16 spotlight, having arrived here last year and, in fact, advancing one round further to the Elite Eight.
Only one will get back there Sunday. Top-seeded Houston and fifth-seeded Miami square off in the first of two Midwest Regional Sweet 16 contests Friday night at Kansas City’s T-Mobile Center. The game, televised on CBS, tips off at 6:15 p.m. local time (7:15 p.m. in Miami-Dade County).
And while it promises to be an exciting matchup, it won’t be for the faint of heart. Although neither Miami nor Houston has a starter taller than 6-8, Canes head coach Jim Larrañaga expects a physical battle.
“Houston’s much more like a mirror image of us size-wise,” he said. “They’re not overly tall but what they are is thicker. They outweigh us probably at every position except Norchad (Omier). What that means is the physicality of the game is going to be very important.”
The Cougars (33-3) spent seven weeks as the nation’s top-ranked team this season and never fell below No. 5. The Canes (27-7) earned a share of the ACC regular season title and are the lone conference team remaining in the tournament.
Houston is the second overall seed for a reason – the Cougars have won 15 of their last 16 games, boast five players who average double figures and rank in the nation’s Top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
But the Canes have won 11 of their last 13 games on the strength of a dynamic offense, averaging 81.3 points per game over that stretch. After winning a rock fight over Drake in the first round – where Miami scored 16 of the game’s final 17 points – the Canes rolled to an 85-69 win over Indiana in Round 2, led by ACC Player of the Year Isaiah Wong, who scored 27 points.
Miami’s performance on the offensive glass was crucial to that victory. The Canes outrebounded the Hoosiers 48-31 and actually had more offensive rebounds (20) than Indiana had defensive rebounds (19).
Rebounding figures to again be a critical factor Friday night. The Cougars rank fourth in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage.
“They rebound the ball tremendously well at both ends, especially at the offensive end, where they’re able to, if they miss a shot, just offensive rebound and score either at the rim or kick it out for a three,” Larrañaga said.
The second half performance in its second-round game was Houston at its frenetic best as Kelvin Sampson’s squad outscored Auburn 50-23, holding the Tigers to 4 of 24 from the field. A 10-point halftime deficit quickly shifted to a comfortable, 17-point win.
The Cougars’ backcourt trio of Marcus Sasser, Jamal Shead and Tramon Mark, who average 37.3 points between them, sparked the comeback. Mark had a career-high 26 points and Sasser, a first-team All-America selection, had 22 points and hit five three-pointers.
“They put so much pressure on you at every position,” Larrañaga said. “Some teams are good putting pressure on the guards, but these guys put pressure at every position.”
But Wong is coming off a monster game of his own in the second round, hitting 9 of 17 shots, including four three-pointers. He also grabbed eight rebounds, one off his season high. Meanwhile, backcourt mate Nijel Pack has hit double figures in seven of his last nine games, including a game-high 21 against Drake.
“We just have to play physical and match their energy,” Wong said.
After suffering an injury in Miami’s ACC Tournament semifinal loss to Duke, Omier has returned to grab 31 rebounds in the Canes’ two NCAA Tournament games. His presence inside on both ends of the floor will again be key for Miami.
“They’re a great defensive team and they also attack the offensive boards,” Omier said. “Those are two points we’ve got to focus on. Don’t turn the ball over and you have to box out.”
After practicing Thursday morning, the Canes now await their latest turn on the national stage, a position to which they have become accustomed to in recent years. That’s a credit to Larrañaga and the culture he’s built since he arrived in Coral Gables.
“Everybody has looked at the University of Miami as a football program, as a football school, and there’s a good reason for that,” he said. “Our football program has won five national championships. And even those who follow baseball know we’ve won four national championships in baseball.
“But our basketball program has really been elevated over the last 12 years. My staff has done a fantastic job of recruiting quality young men who play quality basketball, and they’re all graduating. So we’re very, very pleased with the company we’re keeping.”