Greg Cote: Miami has 2 shots at elusive 1st national championship in basketball

Tribune Content Agency

MIAMI — It is bound to happen someday … right? Might that time finally be at hand?

College basketball’s NCAA Tournament feeds the March Madness mystique with the idea Cinderella is real and David’s slingshot is, too. This is where anything can happen. Where a lowly 16th-seeded team can shock the world by (albeit very occasionally) beating a No. 1.

So right now, on Friday, the University of Miami men’s and women’s basketball teams are closer than ever, together, at the same time, to ending the two programs’ combined 102-season drought of never having won a national championship.

Only UM, Tennessee, UConn and UCLA have both teams alive in the Sweet 16 round. For the Canes, that’s an historic first.

Coach Katie Meier’s No. 9 seed Miami women face No. 4 Villanova on Friday afternoon in Greenville, S.C. A few hours later on Friday night, coach Jim Larranaga’s No. 5-seed UM men play No. 1 Houston in Kansas City, Mo.

Both Canes teams are underdogs, but small ones.

Larranaga’s guys reached the Elite Eight for the first time a year ago and, for me, this team is better.

Meier’s women reached the Sweet 16 for the first time in 31 years off a stunning 70-68 upset of No. 1 Indiana on the Hoosiers’ own home court.

Both teams made it through the gauntlet that is the tough Atlantic Coast Conference.

The Canes women beating Indiana marked the biggest victory in program history. I proposed it must also have been the biggest moment in Meier’s professional life, assuming I’d hear fast agreement.

Instead I heard unexpected silence.

“It was a big,” she said Thursday after a long pause. “But biggest … the ‘est’ part makes it final.”

In other words, Meier’s Canes hope they have four more games, four more chances, to go from big to bigger to biggest.

In case you’d like to believe fate is smiling on her team, UM’s game-winning shot to beat mighty Indiana was by a player named Destiny.

“She is so much my heart. So loyal. Such a soldier,” Meier said of fifth-year senior Destiny Harden. “I would hire Dez in a minute in any job, ever.”

Harden and Haley Cavinder lead the team in scoring. Haley and twin sister Hanna joined UM via a huge name, image & likeness windfall and are social media stars with 4.5 million TikTok followers and another 1.3 million on Instagram. Their posts lean toward sexy photos and videos.

But Meier is eager to set straight any misconceptions about them.

“They are never late, first ones to the gym, extra film, they get shots up on their day off,” said the coach of the twins. “They keep it so compartmentalized. Amazingly smart. Amazingly disciplined.”

The challenge for Meier’s team will be in facing the nation’s leading scorer in ‘Nova’s Maddy Siegrist, averaging 29.2 points per game.

“I coached [future WNBA superstar] Breanna Stewart two summers ago in USA Basketball, and she could score like that,” Meier said. “You can scout all you want and they can still rise up and shoot over you. A disconnected team can never defend. But we are highly connected right now.”

Larranaga’s Canes men will face a Houston team that is second in the nation in scoring defense.

“We’re a very good offensive team but they’re excellent on defense,” he said Friday.

Larranaga believes that for returning players like Isaiah Wong and Jordan Miller, last year’s NCAA tourney experience will help Friday night.

“They’ve been here, done that,” he said. “We were clearly an underdog against [No. 2] Auburn [last year] but beat them to get to the Sweet 16, then Iowa state to get to the Elite Eight.”

Miami as one of only four schools with both teams in the Sweet 16 is an exclusive club. So is this, but more so:

UM’s coaches’ combined 30 seasons in Coral Gables (Meier’s 18th since 2005-06 and Larranaga’s 12th since (2011-12) make them one of only two schools in a Power 5 conference whose two basketball coaches have served as long.

Iowa is the other, from the Big Ten. There are only five, total, of 369 Division I schools with the combined tenure of Meier/Larranaga, but the other three are from smaller conferences in Boise State (Mountain West), St. Thomas-Minnesota (Summit League) and Stonehill (Northeast Conference).

Meier (343-223) and Larranaga (253-148) are UM’s all-time winningest coaches in the sport. Their sustained success makes one think at least one of them is due to bust the national championship drought.

Miami has won 21 team team national titles in athletics, most famously five in football and four in baseball. The Canes have won national titles in sports you didn’t even know existed — four in polo in 1947-50. That’s polo on a horse, not in water. Other team crowns have come in women’s golf (five), women’s swimming (two) and men’s crew (rowing, 1).

Conspicuously absent: Basketball.

Dust on the trophy case, too. No team national championships for The U since football and baseball both won their last in 2001.

Can either of Miami’s basketball teams use the Sweet 16 as a springboard to end that drought?

The odds say no.

But this is the tournament where never-say-never applies and the time of the year that makes a hobby of busting brackets.

It’s why Katie Meier would not call beating No. 1 Indiana the biggest moment of her career.

Those may be still to come.