Miami is happy to be in the NCAA Tournament any year, especially this one.
“This was a special year for me and the staff and the players,” coach Jim Larranaga told reporters Tuesday morning, before the eighth-seeded Hurricanes flew to Tulsa, Okla., for Friday’s first-round game against ninth-seeded Michigan State.
“(We went) into the season with six very inexperienced players and only three veterans. You can have six inexperienced players if you have four or five veterans. We really had only nine scholarship guys this year. There were games we only had seven. We had one player suspended for three games (Ja’Quan Newton), and we won those three games. We’ve overcome a lot of adversity and are hitting our stride right now and hopefully we’ll play very well on Friday night.”
They made it by staying afloat in the ACC, a league that proved every bit as tough as many expected.
When the bracket was released Sunday, the conference landed nine teams in the tournament, its highest number ever and two shy of the all-time mark set by the Big East in 2011.
No. 1 seed North Carolina, Duke, Louisville, Florida State, Virginia, Notre Dame, Miami, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest earned bids.
More evidence of how strong the ACC is: Nine teams in the dance was actually something of a disappointment. Syracuse, Clemson and Georgia Tech were on the bubble entering the conference tournament last week in Brooklyn. Had any made it out of the second round, the league could have had more.
The big question: can an ACC team other than Duke or Carolina win it all?
Since the ACC’s inception in 1953, only two other programs have planted the league’s flag at the top of the mountain: North Carolina State (1974, 1983) and former member Maryland (2002). Louisville (1980, 1986, 2013) and Syracuse (2003) carried other banners.
Last year, the ACC landed seven teams in the tournament, and an NCAA-record six made the Sweet 16. Half of the Elite Eight came from the ACC — tying a Big East record set in 2009 — and there may have been more Final Four representation had Virginia-Syracuse and North Carolina-Notre Dame not squared off in the Elite Eight.
This year, UNC appears best equipped to get to the Final Four in Glendale, Ariz.
The Tar Heels, who lost last year’s national title game to Villanova on a last-second 3-pointer, are deeper and more balanced. They have an outstanding backcourt, supremely gifted wing Justin Jackson and a collection of post players any college coach would love to have. Wake Forest, trying to play its way into the tournament as an 11-seed, may not get far despite the outstanding work of former Cardinal Newman star John Collins. The sophomore big man is averaging 18.9 points and 9.8 rebounds and finished second to Jackson in the ACC Player of the Year voting.
Duke, who matches Carolina’s five national titles, beat them in the ACC Tournament and won that crown. The Blue Devils were tough enough to win four games in four days, and had prognosticators wondering if they deserved a No. 1 seed. Instead, they’re red-hot on the 2-line, and a clash with top-seeded Villanova in the East Regional Elite Eight seems likely. With Villanova likely waiting in the second round, ninth-seeded Virginia Tech could be done after the first weekend. To make it to the Sweet 16, fifth-seeded Virginia may have to overcome fourth-seeded Florida, in a battle of defenses ranked No. 1 and No. 4, respectively, by KenPom.com.
Louisville, the No. 2 seed in the Midwest Regional, has a path to the Elite Eight that could include Michigan, Oregon and Kansas. Miami, No. 8 in that region, will try to meet them there, should it top Michigan State and knock off Kansas in the second round.
Finally there’s Florida State, a No. 3 seed in its first tournament appearance since 2012. In the West Region, the Seminoles could have a tough time with No. 14 Florida Gulf Coast, and few will pick them to beat No. 2 Arizona should they make it to the Sweet 16. But no one expected Syracuse to make it to last year’s Final Four as a No. 8 seed, so FSU — and Notre Dame, who is No. 5 in the West — have a recent example from which to draw inspiration.