Canes Ready for their Final Four Moment
HOUSTON – Even before the Hurricanes left Coral Gables, they faced questions.
How would they handle the pressure of playing in the Men’s Final Four? Did they think they’d be able to match up with a veteran team donning the jersey of a program that has been on this stage six times? How would they handle the Connecticut’s size advantage? Were they bothered that, yet again during their NCAA Tournament run, they’d be viewed as the underdog?
And as he as so many times during Miami’s historic run, head coach Jim Larrañaga only smiled.
“Don’t pick us,” he grinned. “That’s been our players’ slogan since the tournament began.”
The coach isn’t exaggerating.
From the moment Miami saw its name pop up on the bracket during the Selection Sunday television broadcast, the Hurricanes have been doubted, despite the fact they won a share of the regular-season ACC title and made a run to the Elite Eight a year ago.
During that broadcast, some experts initially pegged Miami – a five seed – as one of the teams that could potentially fall on the wrong end of an early-round upset by 12th-seeded Drake.
The on-screen discussion elicited groans at the Hurricanes’ Selection Sunday watch party – and maybe partly helped fuel the run they’ve put together since.
In its opening game of the NCAA Tournament, Miami rallied to avoid that projected upset pick, advancing with a 63-56 win over Drake.
Next, Miami knocked off fourth-seeded Indiana, 85-69. After that, a showdown with top-seeded Houston awaited. The Hurricanes handled that too, advancing with an 89-75 win that sent them back to the Elite Eight.
There, Miami rallied again, this time from a 13-point, second-half deficit, to beat second-seeded Texas, 88-81, and earn the first Final Four berth in program history.
Now, the Hurricanes are set to face fourth-seeded Connecticut and again, few outside South Florida seem to think Miami has what it takes to get past the Huskies, a team that has won 10 of its last 11 games and beaten its four tournament opponents by an average of 22.5 points.
“Credit to UConn. They’re a great team. They’ve played some good teams to get here. I think they have some really good guards that lead them in assists [and] that really make the team run. Obviously, they have a really dominant big man in the post who swallows up rebounds and plays really hard,” said Hurricanes fifth-year senior guard Jordan Miller. “But I think personally, we’ve had one of the hardest sides of the bracket. I think we’ve played some really, really elite teams. I mean, everybody, I believe, had us losing to all those teams. So, we’re fine with being the underdogs we’ve been all year.”
Added fourth-year junior guard Isaiah Wong, “UConn is a great team. They love to shoot the ball. Like Jordan said, they have a big man that gets the rebounds and plays hard. They got here for a reason. [But] us being the underdog, we got here for a reason, too. It’s going to be a great game coming in.”
For Miami to extend its four-game win streak and advance to Monday’s national championship game, they’ll have to contend with the Huskies’ duo of Jordan Hawkins and Adama Sanogo, both of whom earned First-Team All-BIG EAST honors this season.
The 6-foot-9 Sanogo leads the Huskies in both scoring (17.1 ppg) and rebounding (7.5 rpg), while Hawkins is averaging 16.3 points per game.
Hawkins – who is battling a stomach bug but was present at UConn’s shootaround early Saturday – has been a force in March, averaging 22.0 points and 4.0 rebounds during the Huskies’ tournament run to earn recognition as the West Regional’s Most Outstanding Player.
Miami will counter with a balanced scoring attack that features four players who average double figures.
Wong, the ACC Player of the Year, leads that group, averaging 16.2 points per game, while Miller is averaging 15.4 points per game.
Guard Nijel Pack, the Most Outstanding Player of the Midwest Regional, is averaging 13.8 points per game, and then there’s Norchad Omier, Miami’s double-double machine, who is averaging 13.3 points and 10.1 rebounds per game.
In any given game this season, any one of those players has stepped up to lead the Hurricanes and that balance has made a difference.
That’s why continuing to do what they do best, the Hurricanes say, will be key Saturday night.
“[UConn] is coached really well. Their program has been a great program in the past and this is something that they’ve been in multiple times,” Pack said. “We know how good of a team they are. They’ve got a lot of talent from inside and outside with a lot of size and things like that. But as long we stick to what Miami does, I think we should be in good shape.”
Said Larrañaga, “I love when we have a balance in our offense. I love when Nijel’s making 3s, Zay is making 3s and [Wooga Poplar] is making 3s, but Norchad is getting dunks and layups and Jordan Miller, the same thing. To us, to play at our best, we need four or five guys in double figures. We’ve had that for most of the season. Hopefully we’ll have that [Saturday].”
If that’s the case, and the Hurricanes are able to advance past Connecticut, they’ll be one win away college basketball’s ultimate prize – and yet another program-defining moment.
It’s been the kind of March run top-notch college basketball players dream of – and one the Hurricanes say has meant the world to each and every one of them.
“We made school history for the first time, Final Four. Obviously, we still have goals we want to reach,” Miller said. “But we’re [also] looking to just kind of set the foundation for Miami basketball and just be what teams look up to and try to reach.”
Added Wong, “We have a great team this year. It’s a feeling like a big accomplishment, coming to the Final Four and just realizing we’re in the top four teams in the country still playing basketball. There’s not a lot of teams playing basketball right now, so it’s a big accomplishment for us.”