AUSTIN -- The University of Miami basketball team is one win away from the Sweet 16, and along the ride, with every win, the national media is not only getting to know the Hurricanes, but they are becoming smitten with their story and charismatic cast of characters.
They aren’t quite on the level of Florida Gulf Coast as a media darling, but for a No. 2 seed with an Atlantic Coast Conference championship and 28-6 record, these Canes were unusually loose and media-friendly heading into Sunday’s Round of 32 game against No. 7 Illinois (8:40 p.m., TNT).
When the Frank Erwin Center was evacuated for a fire alarm during Saturday’s practice, UM players passed the time rapping and playing “rock/paper/scissors.”
One sportswriter joked that he’s going to quit his job if the Hurricanes lose Sunday, and said if they win the national title, he would storm the floor from press row.
Dozens of reporters walked out of the UM locker room Saturday afternoon beaming, after loading their notebooks and recorders with lengthy candid interviews with point guard Shane Larkin, coach Jim Larrañaga and the rest of the UM crew.
Larkin, who faces a huge challenge Sunday against Illinois’ sharpshooting guards, happily held court with reporters for more than 30 minutes. He didn’t shy away from any question, a career tip from his Baseball Hall of Fame father, Barry Larkin.
He retold stories of shagging fly balls for Pete Rose, taking batting practice with Tony Perez, and being anointed “Sugar Shane” by Deion Sanders. He reminisced about dunking on the Fisher-Price goal in his garage as a first-grader, and his first interview at age 5 during the Cincinnati Reds’ father-son game.
“A news station came over and asked if I was going to hit a home run, or something silly like that,” Larkin recalled. “I was shy back then and would hide behind my father.”
After the players cleared out, Larrañaga sat on a folding chair and fielded questions. Asked whether he thought Larkin would be as good a shortstop as he is a point guard, he nodded. “His basketball skills translate immediately to baseball. He’s got tremendous lateral quickness. He’s got tremendous anticipation. He’s got great hand-eye coordination. Great speed. Very, very possible he’d be a better shortstop than point guard.
“Shane’s the right size for baseball. Basketball’s far more challenging for guys his height. He handles it beautifully, but if he were 6-5, it’s ridiculous how good he’d be. But baseball, he’s the perfect height.”
Oftentimes this late in March, high-seeded tournament teams put up their media barricades. Not these Hurricanes. They take the same approach to interviews as they do every opponent: Bring it on!
The Canes said they are excited to face the Illini (23-12), who finished seventh in the Big Ten but play an up-tempo style that will keep Miami on the run and challenge its perimeter defense.
“We want to wear you out and make it a 90-foot game,” first-year Illinois coach John Groce said. The Illini rely on the guard play of Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tracy Abrams.
“They shoot a lot of threes,” Larkin said. “We got to defend the three, rebound and run. When people said we peaked too early, that really lit a fire under us and motivated us. Defensively, we’ve stepped on people early, and when we’ve done that, we finish well.”
Larkin and Johnson said Illinois reminds them of North Carolina, jacking up three-pointers.
Groce said Larkin reminds him of Michigan guard Trey Burke in two ways: “One is the fact that both of them can score, whether it’s the three-point shot, the midrange shot, or getting to the rim. When you do foul them, they make free throws. The second part is, as indicative of Larkin’s stat line [Friday], he had nine assists, is that they see things and have the ability to make guys better around them with the pass.”
Groce is a statistics freak who turned an average mid-major team to a Sweet16 team in his previous job. Sound familiar? The 41-year-old former math teacher is cut from the same mold as Larrañaga, a numbers cruncher who took George Mason to the Final Four in 2006. Groce took No. 13 seed Ohio University to the Round of 16 last March.
He was hired by Illinois to replace Bruce Weber, who was fired after the team lost 12 of its final 14 games last season and failed to make the postseason.
When he gathered his Illini players for their first practice in October, he handed out orange wristbands inscribed with “TNT” (Toughness and Togetherness) and “3-19-13” (the opening date of the NCAA Tournament). They’re past that date now, and determined to reach 3-28-13.
“We’ve got our hands full,” Groce said of UM. “You don’t win the ACC unless you’ve done a lot of things right. Obviously, they’re well coached, they’ve got great size, depth, guard play, they’re very good defensively, so it’s a big challenge, but one we’re looking forward to.”
Power forward James Kelly, a three-star junior college player, announced on Twitter on Saturday that he has committed to UM. Kelly averaged 18 points and 10 rebounds this past season for Owens Community College in Toledo, Ohio. His other offers included St. Bonaventure, Louisiana Tech and Marshall.
UM still might add three or four more players, in addition to Kelly and previous commitments DeAndre Burnett and Davon Reed. Football recruits Corn Elder and Derrick Griffin will walk on with the basketball team and could end up as rotation players, especially Griffin, if he qualifies academically.
Miami Herald sportswriter Barry Jackson contributed to this report.