The University of Miami basketball bandwagon is approaching standing-room-only.
It used to be easy to find a seat, back when the Hurricanes were a middle-of-the-pack team with a couple thousand fans at their games.
Now that they’re Atlantic Coast Conference champions and a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, even President Barack Obama is jumping on board. He revealed his bracket Wednesday, and chose the Canes to go all the way to the Elite Eight.
TV commentators Digger Phelps picked UM to win the national title. ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi has UM in the Final Four playing the Florida Gators.
According to Fanatics.com, an online sports merchandise company, Miami was the top-selling school in the nation on Selection Sunday. UM basketball gear is selling big around South Florida, too.
“We’ve sold more basketball stuff over the last two months than we did the last five years combined,” said Harry Rothwell, general manager of allCanes sporting goods store just off campus.
“We’ve had a big-time spike, and it’s been so much fun because, let’s face it, there haven’t been any championships around here since the 2001-02 football team,” Rothwell added.
“We just got in a shipment of ACC championship T-shirts and are filling orders. For so long, it would drive me crazy to see UM fans wearing football shirts to the basketball games. Now, people are buying hoops gear.”
Rothwell was at the BankUnited Center late Sunday night, when the team bus arrived from the airport after the Canes left the ACC tournament in Greensboro, N.C. He said the team stuck around for about an hour as fans took photos with coach Jim Larranaga, the players and the trophy.
“It was an amazing scene,” Rothwell said. “You want to savor every minute, and you don’t want it to end. I’ve been saying it’s like a fine wine, sip and enjoy because this doesn’t happen all the time.”
Ready to party
A send-off party was planned on campus for Wednesday afternoon, as the team was scheduled to depart for Austin. Big crowds are expected for watch parties Friday at Buffalo Wild Wings in Sunset Place and Sports Grill in South Miami.
The team is loving every minute of it.
Larranaga constantly reminds his players to savor their days as college athletes. Before every game, he tells them to enjoy playing the sport they love with their friends. Just before the tournament selection show came on the air Sunday night, he instructed his team to be the team that has “the most fun” over the next few weeks.
And he allows himself to enjoy, as well. Unlike other programs, which hunker down and shut out the media and the fans, the Hurricanes have been extremely media and fan-friendly over the past few weeks.
Larranaga’s ear has been glued to his cellphone, as he does radio interviews for stations coast-to-coast. He is allowing CBS cameras to be “embedded” with the team for behind-the-scenes coverage. The players have been loose, singing and dancing before and after games.
Sixth-year senior Julian Gamble has taken a page from the Heat’s Chris Bosh and been “video-bombing” during TV interviews. When Larranaga, or players, are being interviewed by a TV crew, Gamble sticks his smiling face in the background.
“It just goes back to Coach L telling us before the tournament that he’s going to be the coach that has the most fun in the tournament, and in my mind, I’m going to be the player that has the most fun in this tournament,” Gamble said.
Fifth-year senior Kenny Kadji said he is having so much fun he’d like to come back for another season.
“I feel like I’m dreaming,” he said. “Some of us were trying to figure out a way to redshirt so we can do this again a couple of times. It’s unbelievable what we’ve been doing this year and the recognition we’re getting as a team. It’s great. It’s hard to explain.”
The Hurricanes play 15th seeded Pacific on Friday at 2:10 p.m. The game will be aired on TNT.