Ask Jim Larranaga if he thought he would be here, preparing for a first-round game in the NCAA Tournament, and he’ll respond in a typically Larranagan way: with a story that illustrates his feelings.
“In 2012, I went into a board of trustees meeting and told the board of trustees to get behind the team if they wanted to see the best basketball team in school history,” he said, recalling his Hurricanes team that finished first in the ACC and won the league title, then went to the Sweet 16.
“I had the utmost confidence in that team because I had a lot of knowledge about them from the previous season,” he said. “This year I had very little.”
College basketball teams are allowed 13 players on scholarship, and at the start of the year he had nine. He had four freshmen and two sophomores “that were really unknown quantities,” he said. He didn’t know if junior Ja’Quan Newton, a combo guard forced into full-time point guard duty, could handle the responsibility on both ends of the floor. Larranaga believed his two seniors, guard Davon Reed and forward Kamari Murphy, would be leaders — but neither had that kind of pressure on last year’s team, a veteran group that made the Sweet 16.
Though it looked like the Hurricanes (21-11) were NIT-bound at certain points in the year, they pulled it together and earned a spot as the slight favorite in Friday’s 8-vs.-9 matchup against Michigan State (19-14) in the Midwest Region (9:20 p.m., TNT). After a season when his team “kept getting better and better and better,” Larranaga said he doesn’t quite know how good they can be.
“These games are separate entities themselves,” he said. “You don’t know if your team is going to shoot great free throws or have a bad night at the free-throw line, or a bad night shooting 3s or just be on fire. Or the opponent, how they’ll play.”
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, with seven Final Fours and a national title (2000) in 20 years of NCAA tournament appearances, feels the same about his group. His top players are freshmen, and he doesn’t quite know how they’ll fare.
It’s a group that includes leading scorer and rebounder Miles Bridges, who averages 16.7 and 8.3, forward Nick Ward and flashy point guard Cassius Winston, who shares time with speedy Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn, a junior from the Bahamas.
“I had an interesting thing happen to me earlier in the week. I made a comment that these young guys were just taking off the diapers,” Izzo said, “and somebody sent me a dozen diapers. And it is time to take them off. They’re guys now that have been through a lot of wars.”
Larranaga sees in them some big boys, to be certain.
“They’ve got a tremendous 1-2 punch in Bridges and Ward,” Larranaga said. “Bridges can score inside, he can score in transition, he shoots the 3 extremely well. … (Ward) is a beast inside, he’s got a tremendous jump hook, he’s a great offensive rebounder, he’s No. 1 in the country in drawing fouls.”
Izzo has had to mix and match all season. October knee injuries to centers Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter left MSU without a rotation player bigger than Ward, who is 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds. He and sophomore Kenny Goins, a 6-6, 230-pound center who is limited offensively, are the Spartans’ frontcourt.
The Hurricanes aren’t a bulky team — 6-10, 230-pound sophomore Ebuka Izundu is the largest member of the rotation — but they have the height advantage. They can roll out Izundu, who can be foul-prone, and freshman Dewan Huell (6-11, 220). Larranaga will start forwards Murphy (6-8, 220) and Anthony Lawrence Jr. (6-7, 210) and hope to find a way to slow down Ward (13.7 points, 6.5 rebounds) from getting comfortable on the block.
“He’s a big kid,” said Murphy, a quick defender. “But I’ve never been bullied. I don’t plan on being bullied.”
Stopping Michigan State’s best player, Bridges (6-7, 230), is another matter. Bridges can score inside, outside or on downhill drives to the basket. It will be up to all Hurricanes to check him, especially Reed (6-6, 220), who is a key reason Miami ranks 20th nationally in KenPom.com’s widely cited defensive efficiency stat. Michigan State isn’t far behind (34th).
The teams are also close in turnovers. The Spartans give the ball away at one of the nation’s highest rates (14.2 per game), and the Hurricanes (12.7) aren’t far behind. UM will try to protect the ball, and hope freshman star-in-the-making Bruce Brown, who put up a combined 55 points in wins over No. 9 North Carolina and No. 10 Duke, can dazzle again.
“In September, watching our workouts, I would have said we have very little chance of being able to compete with the best teams in the country and beating them. But when December rolled around, my opinion completely changed.”
Larranaga saw his players improve daily. He started to believe they’d be in the ACC race.
Now they’re in the tournament, for an unknown length of time, and they’ve given each other something more to believe in.
“We knew we had a lot of young talent, but you never know how quickly they’ll pan out,” Reed said. “I’ve been thoroughly impressed with this group. They’ve been playing hard all season.
“We don’t back down to anybody. That’s our biggest strength.”