CORAL GABLES — Young roster. Lowered expectations.
Who cares. It’s March, and Miami’s dancing.
For the second year in a row and third time in five seasons, UM is heading to the NCAA Tournament.
The Hurricanes (21-11), reloading after graduating three key players from a Sweet 16 squad, were selected as an 8-seed in the Midwest Region. They will open with 9-seed Michigan State (19-14) on Friday in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Kansas (28-4) is No. 1 in the Hurricanes’ bracket. On CBS’s selection show, analyst Seth Davis offhandedly mentioned the possibility of a Michigan State-Kansas matchup in the second round. That comment drew catcalls from a watch party of about 200 at UM’s on-campus Rathskeller bar.
During the commercial break, UM coach Jim Larranaga rose from his seat in front of the big-screen TV, turned and addressed the crowd.
“I guess he’s never seen us play,” Larranaga said, to loud applause.
He drew more cheers when said he hoped watch party attendees would either join them in Tulsa or cheer loudly at home — “so it’ll be us vs. Kansas in the second round.”
Meeting with reporters afterward, Larranaga said Davis’ comments would “give me ammunition to talk to my team about,” he said. “There are certain programs in this country that demand a lot of respect. … In the Big Ten, Michigan State is the premier program. They’ve been at the top of the national rankings, they’ve been to a lot of Final Fours, they’ve won a national championship under coach [Tom] Izzo. I think the media knows him and knows his program very, very well, and they give him a lot of respect.”
That’s exactly why junior point guard Ja’Quan Newton wants to beat them.
“They’re always on TV, the commentators and stuff love them,” he said. “I always wanted to play against a team like Michigan State, or Kansas. … It’s an opportunity. They said we were going to lose.”
“Michigan State has some great basketball history,” senior forward Kamari Murphy said, “but I think it’s time to put some recognition on Miami now.”
Of the Hurricanes, freshman guard Bruce Brown was best-suited to give a scouting report. Three of the Spartans’ top four scorers are freshmen, and Brown played against all of them in elite prep showcases. He faced 6-foot-7, 230-pound forward Miles Bridges (team-best 16.7 points and 8.3 rebounds) in several tournaments, roomed with 6-8, 244-pound forward Nick Ward (13.7 points, 6.5 rebounds) at a Nike basketball camp in Los Angeles, and went head-to-head with 6-foot point guard Cassius Winston (6.7 points, 5.1 assists).
“I feel like we’re a really good team and people just don’t watch us,” Brown said. “But it’s fine. We’re playing on a big stage now and we have something to prove.”
The Hurricanes have faced the Spartans once, and upset them. On Nov. 28, 2012, Larranaga’s unranked squad beat 13th-ranked Michigan State 67-59 in Coral Gables, as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The Hurricanes won their first ACC title later that year and reached the Sweet 16.
Like Miami, this year’s Spartans went 10-8 in their conference (Big Ten). Their common opponents with Miami were Duke, which beat the Spartans 78-69 at home in the Big Ten/ACC challenge, and lowly Rutgers. Michigan State, like Miami, went 1-1 at its conference tournament; it beat Penn State and lost to Minnesota.
Izzo, who is 46-18 in 19 previous NCAA Tournament appearances, is in his 22nd year in Lansing. He won the national title in 2000 and reached the Final Four seven times, most recently in 2015.
“He’s done a tremendous job of building a national championship caliber program every year,” said Larranaga, who also faced Izzo at Bowling Green and George Mason.
The Miami-Michigan State winner advances to a Sunday matchup, likely against top-seeded Kansas. In the 1-vs-16 matchup, Jayhawks face either North Carolina Central or UC-Davis on Friday.
In earning an 8-seed, Miami was rewarded for its signature wins over ninth-ranked North Carolina, 10th-ranked Duke and 18th-ranked Virginia. The Hurricanes’ resume also lacked bad losses; they were 9-0 against teams below 150 in RPI, according to ESPN. The case against them included a non-conference schedule ranked 268th by ESPN and 4-10 record against the RPI top 50.
It’s also hard to gauge how hot they are at the moment.
Miami has lost three of its last four, dropping its final two games of the regular season (at Virginia Tech, at 15th-ranked Florida State) and falling in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament to sixth-ranked North Carolina. It also grabbed a tough win over Syracuse in Brooklyn, and before its late-season funk beat Duke and Virginia (the latter of those two on the road) as part of a four-game winning streak.
“We’re playing pretty good,” Murphy said. “That last game against North Carolina, they were just clicking. They had everything going. We were slow on the defensive end. All I can say is we have a chemistry now. We just know we’re playing for each other, we’re playing for coach L, we’re happy to make the tournament and we like our matchup.”
Leading scorer Davon Reed, a senior, averages 15 points per game and keys one of the better defenses in the tournament.
“We all think we need to share the ball better and get more assists each game, but our defense is great,” Brown said. “When we’re playing good defense, we get turnovers and get easy points in transition.”
The Hurricanes also rely on Murphy (7.3 points, 7.5 rebounds) for defense and rebounding, and Brown (11.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.2 assists) for his all-around game. Brown shares ball-handling duties with Newton, who can be turnover-prone (3.3 per game) but is a talented scorer (13.4 points, 3.4 assists). Off the bench, sophomore forward Anthony Lawrence Jr. and freshman guard D.J. Vasiljevic can get hot from the outside. Freshman Dewan Huell and sophomore Ebuka Izundu provide minutes up front.
Miami was a 3-seed last year, when it lost 92-69 to eventual national champion Villanova in the Sweet 16 in Louisville. The Hurricanes, who went 27-8, lost leading scorer Sheldon McClellan, point guard Angel Rodriguez and center Tonye Jekiri.
This year’s squad, which consists of nine scholarship players (four freshmen, two sophomores, a junior and two seniors), was expected to come together slowly. No player on the roster had precisely the same role as last year. But thanks in large part to to steady play from Reed and Murphy and big-game heroics from Brown, UM went 10-8 in what is widely considered the best conference in the country.
“I think our young players have been coming on late, and our upperclassmen have been playing well the whole season,” Larranaga said.
UM ranks 20th in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com, and 68th in offensive efficiency. Michigan State is 66th in offense and 34th in defense. Both teams prefer to slow the tempo; according to KenPom, Miami ranks 338th of 351 Division I teams in tempo. Sparty is 241st.
In traveling some 1,500 miles to the BOK Center in Tulsa, the Hurricanes will take the longest trip of four Florida-based tournament teams.
Both Florida State (25-8) and Florida (24-8) were expecting high seeds and hoping to land in Orlando, one of eight sites for the opening weekend. They got their wishes. The Seminoles were a 3-seed, and play 14th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast at Amway Center on Thursday. The Eagles (26-7), a.k.a. “Dunk City,” earned an automatic bid by winning the Atlantic Sun Conference.
The Gators made it as a 4-seed, and will play 12th-seeded East Tennessee State in Orlando on Thursday. Davis, on CBS, picked UF to lose that matchup.
Villanova (31-3) is at the top again, grabbing the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament. The Wildcats, who set a record for most wins by a reigning national champ entering the tournament, will start in the East region.
UM will practice at home Monday, Larranaga said, and will leave for Tulsa on Tuesday or Wednesday.