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NCAA Tournament – The U isn’t just football

NCAA Tournament - The U isn't just football

Jim Larranaga and Katie Meier have each been at Miami for over a decade, the clear, recognizable faces of programs that always find a way to delight and surprise, and yes, establish the Hurricanes as a basketball school.

They have provided not only stability but also a clear identity for their respective teams born out of the same mindset and mentality: toughness, grit and relentless determination, no matter the odds.

While their teams’ runs to the Elite Eight might feel improbable considering where they were seeded headed into the tournament (the men at No. 5, the women at No. 9), Larranaga and Meier have worked hard to earn this moment at a school that does not get nearly the same attention as others within the ACC.

Larranaga has been here before, of course, taking the men to the Elite Eight a season ago — a first in program history. Now this year, Meier has led the women to their first Elite Eight in program history. That they are here together is worth celebrating and embracing, despite being some 900 miles apart at their respective tournament sites in Greenville, South Carolina, and Kansas City, Missouri.

The men’s team watched the women beat Villanova on Friday to advance to the Elite Eight, hours before tipoff of their own game against Houston. Then the Miami women watched the men close out the top-seeded Cougars to join them in the next round.

“I think it’s a really, really big deal,” Meier said Saturday. “The two programs have a lot in common. We’re very competitive, like a big brother/little sister or big sister/little brother, depending on who won that week. We get that way with each other, and I love it. Any opportunity you have to have somebody push you, whether you’re on the training table next to somebody, one player next to the other player saying, ‘Why did you miss that shot?’ They’re right there competing with each other in a very loving way. I think it’s elevated both of our programs.”

ACC commissioner Jim Phillips noted the way Miami has represented itself despite perhaps not having the tradition of some of the blue-blood brands like Duke and North Carolina that define the way ACC basketball is viewed. Miami has been in the ACC only since 2004, but it has done more than hold its own in waving the conference flag.

“The commitment the university has made to athletics has shown itself in a lot of ways,” Phillips told ESPN.

“What has been tremendous for the conference is it’s a statement that we have a variety of programs that maybe have had a long history in college basketball and maybe some that haven’t had as much as others, but at any moment those programs can rise to the top and stay there.”

“I’ve heard people describe schools as football schools, basketball schools, whatever. I don’t look at it that way. Our football team has won five national championships. Our baseball team has won four. I think we’ve got a great athletic department and great leadership in the administration.”

Jim Larranaga, Miami men’s coach

Indeed, both teams have become NCAA tournament mainstays. In her 18 years at Miami, Meier has made the NCAA tournament 10 times. In his 12 seasons, Larranaga has led Miami to the tournament six times — including those two Elite Eights and two other Sweet 16 runs.

This year, not only did they both make it to the Elite Eight but they both beat a No. 1 seed. Larranaga specifically mentioned the women beating No. 1 seed Indiana, on the road in the second round, during his postgame comments Friday.

But he also scoffed at the characterization that Miami is a basketball school. But the truth is, the Hurricanes basketball programs have had more postseason success in recent years than football — the most identifiable sports program from a national perspective. Miami has won five national championships in football, the most recent in 2001, but has never won an ACC championship.

The men and women have each won ACC regular-season basketball titles — including the men as co-champs this season.

“I’ve heard people describe schools as football schools, basketball schools, whatever,” Larranaga said. “I don’t look at it that way. Our football team has won five national championships. Our baseball team has won four. I think we’ve got a great athletic department and great leadership in the administration. They do a great job of providing us the resources to be competitive. I’m so proud of Katie Meier and her staff because they did an amazing job. So hats off to both men’s and women’s basketball programs.”

Miami athletic director Dan Radakovich was there to see both games Friday — taking a private jet from Greenville after the Hurricanes’ 70-65 win over Villanova to make it to Kansas City to watch the 89-75 win over Houston.

“This has been a remarkable run to the Elite Eight for both our men’s and women’s basketball teams,” Radakovich told ESPN. “It has been exciting to watch, and it has energized our university community and alumni base from coast to coast. I couldn’t be prouder of our student-athletes, who play with toughness, tenacity and most importantly joy, which is a tribute to Jim and Katie.

“But both of them will tell you the job is not yet finished.”

This run by Miami has been unexpected and, quite honestly, improbable. The Hurricanes were on the bubble headed into Selection Sunday after going 19-12 in the regular season, including a disappointing 68-42 loss to Virginia Tech in the ACC tournament.

After getting a No. 9 seed, they were sent on the road to Bloomington, Indiana, to face Oklahoma State in the first round. At halftime of that very first game, Miami trailed 37-20. It might have felt bleak to those watching at home, but the Hurricanes went into halftime determined not to let their season end.

“They humbled us really quickly, and we thank them for that,” guard Destiny Harden said. “If we didn’t have a hard game like that from beginning, then we probably wouldn’t be as far as we are now.”

Miami rallied to win 62-61, matching the fifth-largest comeback in tournament history. If that game proved to be wild, what awaited next against No. 1 seed Indiana proved even wilder. Playing in front of a raucous Indiana home crowd, Miami never trailed in the game, determined to set the tone right from the start after what had happened in the opening round.

Harden won the game with a shot in the lane with 3.5 seconds left, lifting Miami to the 70-68 victory and a spot in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1992. But Meier refused to call that upset the biggest win of her career. Because there would be more ahead.

Once again, Miami was the underdog against No. 4 seed Villanova in their Sweet 16 matchup, but once again the Hurricanes dictated the tone with their fearlessness in the paint — opening a 21-point lead early in the second half. But Villanova came all the way back, briefly taking the lead, before Jasmyne Roberts‘ three-point play put Miami ahead for good in a 70-65 victory.

Miami has won its three games by a combined eight points, the smallest margin of victory through the first three games in NCAA tournament history.

“We’ve done it all, been down, been up, been tied,” guard Ja’Leah Williams said. “It’s been ups and downs, but we always bring it through no matter what, as long as we’re together and have each other’s backs.”

After his team’s win over 1-seed Houston, Norchad Omier said he’d heard the talk of the Cougars’ physicality and strength. Those traits led to Miami entering that Sweet 16 matchup as a 7.5-point underdog.

But Omier said he always thought Miami could match the Cougars’ toughness. He was right.

“You got to give them credit because they’re a really physical team, but I think that we’ve got to worry about them but they’ve got to worry about us, too,” Omier said after the win. “I don’t know if they thought about Miami, that we’re not physical, but I think I’m pretty physical. I love the physicality, and I think my teammates do.”

The lingering concern all season for Miami was its defensive gaps. The Hurricanes entered Friday’s game outside the top 100 in adjusted defensive efficiency. Despite winning the ACC, Miami’s imbalance — great offensive team (top-10 in adjusted offensive efficiency), poor defensive team — made it easy to pick against Larranaga’s squad.

They’ve proved in the NCAA tournament, however, that they’ve always had the athletes to put together a respectable defensive effort.

But they’re back in the Elite Eight for the second year in a row because Isaiah Wong, the ACC Player of the Year, creates matchup problems as a versatile 6-foot-4 wing. Nijel Pack, the Kansas State transfer who has made 41% of his 3-point attempts this season, is both a point guard and a playmaker who creates defensive challenges for opponents, too.

The team also plays a more modern style with a small-ball lineup that features a “frontcourt” with Wooga Poplar (6-5), Jordan Miller (6-7) and Omier (6-7). While that might present defensive obstacles against bigger teams, Miami’s ability to score in transition and run the floor has been the catalyst for its run to this stage.

Since Jan. 28, the ACC co-champs have amassed a 12-2 record and connected on 40% of their 3-point attempts. Those shots have been the catalysts for another run to the Elite Eight, where Miami has silenced any doubters about its ability to win a national title.

“We emphasized moving the ball and finding the open man, and the guys did such a fantastic job from start to finish,” Larranaga said after Friday’s game. “We only ended up with six turnovers. So that’s the name of the game. And we tied them in rebounding. A great performance by our guys.” –Myron Medcalf

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