KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Miami Hurricanes and their lovable dancing coach Jim Larranaga find themselves in the same situation they were in one year ago today: In the Elite Eight, gaining respect from skeptics, 40 minutes from the school’s first Final Four, and facing a talented Big 12 team.
They are in a different city. Otherwise, the parallels are striking.
Fifth-seeded Miami will play No. 2 Texas, the tournament’s highest remaining seed, on Sunday at 5:05 p.m. for a berth in the Final Four, being held in Houston next weekend.
One year ago this week, in Chicago, the 2022 Hurricanes’ magical March ride came to an end after the 10th-seeded Canes, playing in the first Elite Eight in school history, lost 76-50 to the top-ranked Jayhawks, who wound up winning the national title. Miami led by six at halftime, shocking the boisterous United Center crowd and national TV audience, but unraveled in the second half.
The Hurricanes left the court in tears, some with towels draped over their heads.
On the eve of Sunday’s game against Texas, Larranaga was asked what he and his players learned from that loss.
“Don’t get in foul trouble,” he said. “Really, we were ahead by six at halftime, but we had several guys sitting on the bench in foul trouble, and that really made the difference. We could not sustain the effort.
“We had a couple of guys foul out. You’ve got to give Kansas and basically David McCormack the credit because he was awesome. They had a great team, and they ended up winning the National Championship.”
Isaiah Wong, Jordan Miller, Wooga Poplar and Bensley Joseph were among the UM players who were on that team. They have spent all month mentoring newcomers Nijel Pack and Norchad Omier on how to navigate the NCAA Tournament and surrounding madness.
So far, so good.
“I feel like last year we got a lot of knowledge of how it was, so with this team this year, we’re just going to play through it,” Wong said. “We have me and Jordan and Wooga to show Nijel and Chad the experience and just help each other throughout the game tomorrow.”
They face another big test against a team many experts predicted would make the Final Four and/or win the title.
Texas has a well-balanced resilient team that won the Big 12 tournament title two weeks ago on the same T-Mobile Center floor where the Longhorns will play the Hurricanes on Sunday. They have wins over then-No. 2 Gonzaga, No. 3 Kansas (twice), No. 7 Creighton, No. 11 Baylor, and No. 7 Kansas State.
In some ways, like Houston, Texas is a mirror image of Miami. The Longhorns do not rely on 7-footers. They have an athletic high-scoring guard combo in Tyrese Hunter and Marcus Carr, versatile senior forward Timmy Allen and 6-8 freshman Dillon Mitchell, a Tampa native.
They scored 83 points against Xavier in their win Friday night, while Miami scored 89 against the vaunted defense of top seed Houston.
UM guard Nijel Pack, who led the Hurricanes with 26 points and seven 3-pointers against Houston on Friday, transferred from Kansas State and has played against the Texas guards.
“Both of those guys are really good guards, playing against them was a challenge definitely,” Pack said. “They definitely have the credit they have deserved. So it’s going to be a great game with the great guards we have and the great guards they have.
“It’s going to come down to getting stops definitely and getting rebounds. We know how good of a team they are, but if we can play team defense and crowd the ball and things like that and don’t let them do the things they like to do, I think we can be really successful.”
Larranaga said Texas does not remind him of any particular former opponent.
“There’s several teams that you’d have to combine what they do to really put Texas together,” he said. “They are like the Houston team, which was very, very athletic guys about our size. So, we match up kind of the same there. They also have incredibly good guard play like NC State. NC State’s backcourt of (Terquavion) Smith and (Jarkel) Joiner was tremendous. We had a hard time guarding them. NC State also pressures, denies, very much like Texas does.”
Also, the Longhorns are playing inspired under interim coach Rodney Terry, who took over the top job in December, when Chris Beard was suspended and eventually fired following allegations of domestic violence.
“Rodney Terry was put in a very difficult situation because Chris Beard is one hell of a coach,” Larranaga said. “When Rodney had to step into his role, he had to command the respect of his players first. They bought into whatever he said, whatever he did, hook, line, and sinker. They are an outstanding team. They’ve played very hard and very well together at both ends of the court.”
Allen gave Terry a vote of support for the way he handled the coaching transition.
“He gave us a clear view. He gave us a steady voice.,” Allen said. “I think a lot of guys on this team were looking for guidance after that, looking for someone to follow, looking for someone to lead by example, and he’s done that flawlessly.
Larranaga was impressed with how the Longhorns played in their 83-71 win against No. 3 seed Xavier on Saturday night. They opened a big early lead, stayed ahead and were up by more than 20 in the second half.
“Rodney deserves a lot of credit for that,” Larranaga said.
Terry has mutual respect for Larranaga and his team. He competed against the UM coach back when he was at UNC-Wilmington and Larranaga was at George Mason.
“Man, they’re well coached,” Terry said. “He has his team playing at the highest level right now. They can play really fast in transition. They do a great job of really sharing the basketball. They’ve got great guard play. They have an elite offensive rebounder with Omier inside. They’re a very talented ball club.”
Terry said Miami is underrated defensively.
“They do a great job of really trying to turn you over, their length. They’re stunting and doing a great job of really trying to get after you defensively. It’s underrated. They’re a really, really good ball club. Any time you win the regular season ACC, you’re pretty doggone good.”
One of the big questions heading into the game is whether 6-9 Texas senior Dylan Disu will be able to play. He had been dominant through the first two rounds of the tournament, averaging 23.5 points and 10 rebounds, but he hurt his foot during the second round win over Penn State.
He tried to play a few minutes against Xavier, but limped off the floor and returned in a walking boot.
Terry said Disu is “day to day” and a decision on his status will not be made until the last minute.