Friedlander: A disappointment in football, Miami quietly steps up in basketball to save the day for the ACC
Miami was brought into the ACC in 2003, essentially to save the league’s sagging national reputation in football.
The league is still waiting for it to happen.
Who could have imagined that 2 decades later, the Hurricanes would be the team to step up and save the league from basketball indignity.
Pittsburgh’s loss to Xavier in Greensboro earlier in the day, combined with previous defeats suffered by the 3 other conference rivals in the bracket – Virginia, Duke and NC State – left Jim Larrañaga’s 5th-seeded team as the last ACC entry standing in the NCAA Tournament bracket.
A loss in Sunday’s 2nd-round Midwest Region game against Indiana wouldn’t just have given the ACC’s growing legion of detractors added fuel to stoke the firestorm of criticism they’ve been heaping on the league in recent years.
It would also have made history.
At least 1 ACC team has advanced as far as the Sweet 16 every year since the Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. It’s the only conference able to make that claim.
It can still continue to do so thanks to Miami’s surgical 85-69 takedown of the 4th-seeded Hoosiers.
“I told the team beforehand the ACC needs to be well-represented today,” Larrañaga said. “And we did.”
The Hurricanes certainly looked like a team playing with a purpose. They imposed their will on their higher-seeded opponent literally from the jump, bolting out to a double-digit lead in the opening 5 minutes and remaining in control most of the way with the exception of a short stretch late in the 1st half and early in the 2nd.
They attacked the rim with abandon, played tenacious defense, dominated the glass by a whopping 48-31 margin and got a standout 27-point, 8-rebound effort from ACC Player of the Year Isaiah Wong in earning their 1st back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances in school history.
In other words, it was just another typical day at the office.
The only difference between this performance and so many others on the way to 27 wins and a share of the regular season conference championship is the stage on which it came. And that people beyond the boundaries of Coral Gables may finally have noticed.
Basketball at Miami is easily overlooked because of its location, the company it keeps in the ACC and the highly-publicized struggles of its more famous football program. It doesn’t help that their studious coach looks more like a transplanted New York retiree than a colorful sideline entertainer.
What Larrañaga lacks in camera presence, he makes up for with results.
He was already 1 of the best in the business long before the tilde suddenly appeared above the “n” in his surname, getting George Mason to the Final Four in 2006 before becoming the winningest coach in Hurricanes history with 253 victories and counting.
This will be the 4th time he’s taken Miami to a regional semifinal in his 12 seasons there. That’s 3 more appearances than the program had ever made before he took over.
Since joining the ACC in 2004, Miami has finished in the top 16 twice in the final AP college football poll. The Canes are headed to the Sweet 16 for the 4th time under Jim Larranaga. You tell me who has done more with less.
— Chris Wright (@CWrightSDS) March 20, 2023
Earlier this year, Larrañaga finally gained a measure of public acclaim when he was nominated for induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Recognition for his team’s success has been slower in coming.
Even last year, when Miami came within a game of making it all the way to the Final Four, its accomplishments were ghosted by the media circus surrounding Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski’s impending retirement and his team’s historic national semifinal clash with fellow ACC blue blood North Carolina.
With the Blue Devils having been knocked off by Tennessee a day earlier and the Tar Heels having become the 1st preseason No. 1 to be left out of the Tournament field, there were no shiny objects left to distract the nation’s attention on Sunday.
And the Hurricanes didn’t waste the opportunity.
Miami (+105 ML) dominates Indiana 85-69 and advances to the Sweet 16!pic.twitter.com/LO2m2FiEQe
— Odds Shark (@OddsShark) March 20, 2023
They showed that there’s still plenty of swagger to be found in South Florida. Only now, contrary to the antiquated perception born from its glory days on the gridiron, Miami’s current claim to athletic fame is as a basketball school.
“At the end of the day, all we can do is just come out and win basketball games,” said Jordan Miller, a senior wing who contributed 17 points to his team’s latest victory. “I feel like winning a game in itself is a way to get recognition. We’re going to the Sweet 16. That’s a lot of recognition.”
They’ll get even more if they can knock off top-seeded Houston in Kansas City on Friday and earn a return trip to the Elite 8.
No matter how much farther they go, the Hurricanes can take pride in the fact that at the very least, they helped their conference save a little face from an otherwise dismal NCAA Tournament showing.