Friedlander: Miami's surprise run to the Elite 8 a surprise only to those who haven't been paying attention
Miami’s surprise run through the NCAA Tournament continues.
Only it’s not really a surprise.
Not to those who have been paying attention.
The Hurricanes might come off as a plucky underdog from a football school to CBS studio analyst Charles Barkley, who is notorious for not doing a lot of homework leading up to March. Or an NCAA selection committee that should have known better.
But they’re neither a Cinderella story nor a surprise.
Sir Charles, committee members, college basketball at large, let me take this opportunity to introduce you to the team that has taken the NCAA’s Midwest Region by storm and now stands just 1 victory away from the Final 4.
They’re the well-coached, highly-talented, grossly underseeded ACC regular season co-champion Miami Hurricanes.
And they’re anything but a fluke.
Their emphatic wins against higher-rated opponent Indiana in the 2nd round and top-seeded Houston in the Sweet 16 on Friday were reminiscent of the 22–point blowout they inflicted on Duke back on Feb. 6.
It’s who they’ve been all season. The past 2 seasons, to be exact.
After winning 26 games in 2021-22, they’ve reeled off 28 and counting this year on the way to their 2nd straight trip to the Elite 8, the 1st time in school history that’s happened.
Maybe now that they’re the last ACC team standing, without the shiny objects of brand names North Carolina, Duke and Virginia to serve as a distraction, maybe people might start taking notice.
Or maybe they shouldn’t, considering the motivation senior guard Jordan Miller and his teammates appear to be taking from the lack of respect they’ve gotten.
“We just wanted it really bad,” Miller said after helping his 5th-seeded team to an 89-75 takedown of Houston. “We came into this game as the underdogs. We had a lead throughout the whole game. I wouldn’t say a comfortable lead, but a lead and we just didn’t want to let up.”
Friday’s win in Kansas City followed a similar pattern to the one a round earlier in Albany, NY.
Miami established itself early, withstood an early 2nd half run by their opponent, then answered the challenge by putting the hammer down on both ends of the floor and pulling away.
Sunday against the Hoosiers, it was ACC Player of the Year Isaiah Wong spearheaded the effort by scoring a game-high 27 points. This time it was his highly-regarded backcourt mate Nijel Pack that did the majority of the damage.
The transfer from Kansas State, which is also still alive and kicking in the Tournament, put on a long-range shooting clinic by going 7 of 10 from 3-point range on his way to 26 points.
But he was far from the only hero.
The balance and selflessness of the Hurricanes that has been their trademark – if anyone was paying attention – has been on full display these past 2 weeks.
Miami football has never finished in top 8 of final AP poll since joining the ACC in 2004.
Miami baseball has been to (8-team) College World Series 5 times since joining ACC.
Miami basketball is headed to the Elite 8 for 2nd straight year.
We don't appreciate UM hoops enough.
— Chris Wright (@CWrightSDS) March 25, 2023
All 5 starters scored in double figures in this latest victory, including wing Wooga Poplar, whose availability was in question until Thursday after taking a hard fall in the Indiana game.
As a group, they turned the ball over only 6 times, shot 52% and torched the nation’s 2nd best defense for 89 points – 32 points more than the Cougars’ season average and 12 more than anyone has managed against them.
“So did they make us play poorly? I’d have to go back and look at the film, but they’re good,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said. “There’s a reason why they’re the ACC champions.”
Sampson’s team was just as out of character on the other end of the court, thanks to a Miami defense designed to negate the Cougars’ size advantage inside and reinforced by some unusual tactics from their equally underrated coach Jim Larrañaga.
“Last night in our team meeting, we put a 3-second lane in the video room and then we packed everybody in it,” Larrañaga said after the game. “I told them to beat Houston you’ve got to have 5 guys in the paint, everybody’s got to block out and everybody’s got to rebound.”
It’s a message Larrañaga feared his team didn’t take seriously. So before the game, he used the memory of a traumatic incident shortly after the aforementioned video session to drive his point home.
“When the guys left the meeting, they packed 12 guys into the elevator and it got stuck,” he said. “It took a half hour for the firemen to get them out of there. I just told them today at our shootaround, hey, our defense was too stretched out. You guys got to be in the paint like you were in the elevator yesterday. And they did that.”
The key to the effort, as he has been all year, was 6-foot-7 Norchad Omier, an undersized rebounding machine in the same mold as Barkley.
His value to the team was never more evident than in an ACC Tournament semifinal loss to Duke, in which he played only 66 seconds before leaving the game with an injured ankle. Had the Hurricanes won that game and gone on to cut down the nets in Greensboro, they might have earned a higher seeding on Selection Sunday.
Then again, considering how devalued the ACC has been this season, maybe not.
But that doesn’t matter anymore.
Those 9 Big Ten teams all the pundits seemed to love so much when the Tournament started have all been sent home. So have the 8 SEC teams that were in the bracket.
And, surprise, the Hurricanes are one of the 8 still dancing.
Not that anyone should really be surprised.