NEW YORK — As the NCAA Tournament picture comes into focus, one thing seems clear: there are no truly dominant teams.
“I don’t trust anybody,” said Jerry Palm, CBS Sports’ chief bracketologist. “OK, I trust Virginia and Villanova. But that’s it. … And I don’t know that I’d pick either of them to win the tournament.”
“It’s one of those years a 7-seed could win,” the Athletic’s Stewart Mandel said.
Virginia, which rolled through the ACC with a 17-1 record, is the favorite at the conference tournament this week in Brooklyn. The Cavaliers are likely to nab a No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday. They’re a safe pick.
Beyond that is anyone’s guess.
That’s good news for Miami.
2018 ACC TOURNAMENT
“Whenever you play in a tournament, your plan is to win it,” said Hurricanes coach Jim Larranaga, whose third-seeded squad opens play at 9 p.m. Thursday (ESPN2). “We’re playing really good teams. If the seeds were to hold up, we’d have to beat North Carolina, Duke and Virginia. But who knows who’s going to play great.”
Before this season, and during much of it, Larranaga worried about the inexperience on his team. He’s fretting less and less come March.
As his team practiced Tuesday at a prep school in Lower Manhattan, he rattled off the outstanding performances that have carried Miami (22-8, 11-7 ACC) in the 10 games since star sophomore Bruce Brown broke his left foot. UM won its final four games by a total of eight points, and is 7-3 without Brown, who will be reevaluated Monday.
Forward Anthony Lawrence scored 25 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in a win over Virginia Tech. Backup center Ebuka Izundu, starting his first game, put up 14 and 8 at Notre Dame. Super sub Chris Lykes scored 11 points in the final four minutes against Boston College. Lonnie Walker hit several big shots in the final minutes in that game and others.
“There’s a different guy every night,” Larranaga said.
Not only is Ja’Quan Newton playing strong defense and bringing energy, he hit a buzzer-beating 3 in Miami’s most glittering resume piece: a 91-88 win at No. 9 North Carolina. In each of the last two seasons, he was suspended for three games for rules violations. UM’s lone senior has bought in fully. “This is the best I’ve seen him,” Larranaga said.
Forward Sam Waardenburg’s emergence has been particularly important, since it allows Larranaga to move Lawrence from power forward to small forward and rest Walker. When Brown was healthy, Larranaga preferred to make a Brown-for-Walker switch. But the redshirt freshman from New Zealand has proven trustworthy, playing 20-plus minutes in his last three games, with seven points and 13 rebounds in that span. He was particularly impactful in UM’s win at UNC (four assists, two steals and a block). Larranaga was overjoyed at his composure in front of 20,251 fans wearing Carolina blue.
Back home in Auckland, the biggest crowd Waardenburg faced was all of 70 people.
“That’s why early in the season, when we went to Minnesota, he looked like a nervous wreck,” Larranaga said. “Now, at Carolina? He’s making great defensive plays, great passes, just playing like a real veteran. He looks terrific.”
At the Barclays Center, where crowds on Wednesday were hampered by heavy snow and wind brought by Winter Storm Quinn, Miami might meet the Tar Heels again. The Canes will play the winner of Wednesday’s late game between UNC (22-9, 11-7) and Syracuse (20-12, 8-10). The Orange, who won 62-55 at UM last month, are desperate for a win to get off the bubble.
Miami will assuredly make the cut regardless of its performance in Brooklyn. Palm has the Hurricanes as a No. 8 NCAA seed; a “middle-of-a-bracket team,” he said. He feels they may not make it out of the first weekend.
“They’re in that lump of teams that could go on a run, or get knocked off by a 12-seed in the first round,” Mandel said. “There’s not a lot of teams that have been consistent enough this season to say, I’m going to put all my eggs in their basket.”
So, Larranaga wonders, why not his team? They’ve already figured out how to play without Brown, so why can’t they figure out how to win an ACC title?
“I don’t know how we’re going to do,” he said. “But if you told me two weeks ago that we’d get a double-bye … We did our part.”