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CHICAGO — “For our players, it is a great opportunity to compete against the best. To be considered among the best, you have to beat really good teams. We have done that so far.”
Miami Hurricanes head coach Jim Larrañaga said in a statement during the Elite Eight media sessions on Saturday afternoon.
Larrañaga is no stranger to being the underdog.
His most notable achievement was the historic Final Four run of his 2006 George Mason Patriots. That team entered the tournament as an 11-seed and upset Michigan State, North Carolina, and top-ranked UConn.
The Hurricanes realize they are not supposed to be here.
“Knowing you are one of only eight teams left makes you feel very fortunate,” Larrañaga commented. “My guys realize this is not something that happens every day. For Kansas, it does, but not for Miami.”
How does a team predicted to finish 12th in their conference find themselves one game away from the Final Four?
The answer is simple: hard work, defense, team chemistry, and a little March magic.
After finishing 10-17 last season, there was not much optimism surrounding Hurricane basketball. It looked as if Larrañaga was headed for the hot seat with his team on the decline.
Miami has failed to make the tournament the past three seasons while finishing in the bottom half of the ACC.
Headed into the off-season, Larrañaga knew some changes were needed, or his time at Miami was in danger.
Relief presented itself as Miami’s two top players All-ACC guard Isaiah Wong and senior Kameron McGusty, announced they were returning to Coral Gables.
Both players considered entering the 2021 NBA Draft.
The Canes also added the following players: transfer guard Charlie Moore from Depaul, wing Jordan Miller from George Mason, and 2021 four-star guard Bensely Joseph.
The “Scramble” Defense
Miami’s restructured roster looked more athletic, competitive, experienced, and suitable to run Larrañaga’s scramble defense.
Larrañaga knew running the “scramble” as close to perfection would offset his team’s lack of size.
Defensive tenacity led to Miami being one of the best defensive teams in the country. The Hurricanes forced 14 turnovers per game, with 8.9 steals throughout the season.
During their three-game stretch in the tournament, Miami has caused an impressive 49 turnovers, including 34 steals.
They are a relentless, ball-hawking unit that makes an offense work for every point scored.
Not to be overshadowed by their defense, Miami’s offense is no slouch. The Canes rank 5th in turnover margin, 18th in offensive efficiency, and are shooting 55% from the field.
With a guard-heavy starting lineup, they rarely turn the ball over and can score from anywhere on the court.
The secret sauce to this Miami team is Larrañaga’s “Why Not Us?” attitude. It was the driving force behind his 2006 George Mason team, and it is back in proper form with his 2022 Miami squad.
A starting lineup of three sixth-year seniors, a fourth-year junior, and a third-year sophomore; they know this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
When speaking about being one win away from the Final Four, Jordan Miller, a fourth-year junior transfer from George Mason, commented:
“It has not even sunk in with me yet. It just feels so surreal. At this point, you almost have to play perfect basketball, and basketball is a game of mistakes, so we are trying to stay locked into the moment.”
Staying locked in has not seemed to be a problem for the Hurricanes this season.
The Hurricanes brought that same focus to the tournament after upsetting #2 Duke and North Carolina during conference play.
They escaped USC by two points in the First Round, blew out #2 seeded Auburn in the Round of 32, then defeated Iowa State by fourteen in Friday’s Sweet Sixteen matchup.
Heading into Sunday’s Elite Eight game with Kansas, Miami will have to be more locked in than ever. The Jayhawks are the region’s number one ranked team.
They should find comfort knowing Kansas has struggled against solid defensive teams this season. Demonstrated by the Jayhawks in their loss to Texas Tech during conference play.
Every year the NCAA Tournament produces a team that seems to have a date with destiny. In the words of Coach Larrañaga:
“Why Not Us?”
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