CORAL GABLES, Fla. — The Miami Hurricanes are hoping history repeats itself this week.
A little over a year ago, Miami made it past its first-round opponent and faced second-seeded Auburn in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Despite being the underdogs, the Hurricanes picked up an 18-point win to send the program to the Sweet 16.
This year, No. 5 Miami (27-7) runs into the region’s No. 1 seed, Houston, in the Sweet 16, and the Hurricanes hope to send another projected national-title contender home early. UM squares off with the Cougars at 7:15 p.m. on Friday in Kansas City with a trip to the Elite Eight on the line.
“They’re a great team; I feel like we have to match,” freshman forward A.J. Casey said. “But I feel like I have confidence in my teammates, as well. We’re going to do it. We’re going to go out there, do what we’re supposed to do, stick to the game plan and get this job done.”
The task will not be easy. The Cougars (33-3) ended the season ranked second in the AP poll, and star guard Marcus Sasser was voted an AP first-team All-American and was named the AAC Player of the Year.
Houston nearly swept its conference’s end-of-year awards, with Jamal Shead Jr. winning Defensive Player of the Year, Jarace Walker winning Freshman of the Year, J’Wan Roberts winning Most Improved Player and Reggie Chaney winning Sixth Man of the Year. Coach Kelvin Simpson was named the conference’s Coach of the Year.
“Their three guards are tremendous,” Miami coach Jim Larrañaga said. “Shead, Sasser and [Tramon] Mark all have incredible skills to score the ball.”
Like Miami, which needed to deal with forward Norchad Omier’s ankle injury in the tournament’s first weekend, Houston has been managing an injury to a key player. Sasser missed the second half of the Cougars’ first-round win over Northern Kentucky due to a groin injury, but he returned on Saturday to score 22 points in Houston’s second-round win over Auburn.
Sasser said Tuesday that he should be “at least 90″ percent ready for the game against Miami on Friday.
“I should be at least 90 [percent on Friday], so I should be really close to 100,” Sasser told the Houston Chronicle. “My explosiveness, I’m getting it back. I’ve been doing a lot of stretches and weight stuff, just getting it strengthened back up.”
Larrañaga sees similarities between the Hurricanes and Cougars, citing Houston’s size. Like Miami, Houston does not have a seven-foot player on the roster.
“Houston’s much more like a mirror image of us, size-wise,” Larrañaga said. “They’re not overly tall. But what they are is thicker. They outweigh us probably at every position except Norchad’s. So what that means is the physicality of the game is going to be very important.”
On the injury front, Omier is ready to play against Houston, but the Hurricanes are keeping an eye on guard Wooga Poplar. The sophomore guard suffered an injury in Miami’s second-round win over the Hoosiers. Larrañaga said Poplar has not practiced since the injury,
“Wooga’s a very, very talented young man in many regards,” Larrañaga said. “He has developed to become a fantastic defensive player. He’s the guy that shut down Tucker DeVries in the Drake game. He’s also someone that had some incredible rebounds against Indiana.”
Miami will also look for ACC Player of the Year Isaiah Wong to repeat his performance and lead the team into the Elite Eight. Drake held Wong to just five points in the first round, but Wong came back and scored 27 points with eight rebounds against Indiana.
“Isaiah Wong, since he came here, he’s just a tremendous competitor,” Larrañaga said. “He’s not going to play great every single game. No one does. But Isaiah … rises to the occasion. He’s done that throughout his career. Against Drake, I know he was disappointed with the way he played. He went one for 10 from the field, and that’s uncharacteristic. So he bounced back and scored 27 points against Indiana and kind of dominated the second half.”
Although the Hurricanes find themselves the underdog yet again (Houston opened as 7.5-point favorites), they believe they can pull off another upset and secure the program’s second-ever trip to the Elite Eight.
“Last year, the guys went to the Elite Eight, and I think they want more,” Omier said. “I haven’t been part of this yet. … I want more, too, and I haven’t been part of it. I think everybody has that hunger to win, and let’s go farther and farther.”