Last year at this time, the University of Miami men’s basketball team was a national feel-good story. The Hurricanes — with explosive point guard Shane Larkin leading the way — had gone from afterthoughts to ACC regular-season champions. They arrived in Greensboro, N.C., as the team to beat in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament.
Nobody beat them. The Canes topped North Carolina in the final, and danced away with their first ACC title and a ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
This week, heading into Wednesday’s ACC Tournament opener against last-place Virginia Tech, the UM team finds itself in a far different situation. The 10th-seeded Canes (16-15, 7-11 ACC) need to beat the 15th-seeded Hokies (9-21, 2-16), then beat N.C. State with ACC Player of the Year T.J. Warren, and go on to win the tournament to have a shot at postseason.
The harsh reality: If the Hurricanes lose an ACC Tournament game, their season is over. No NCAA Tournament. Not even a possible NIT bid.
Under the new NIT selection format, the 32 spots will go to league champions who didn’t win their conference tournament, and to teams with the highest RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) after the 37 at-large teams have been invited to the NCAA Tournament.
Miami’s RPI is below 100 and its strength of schedule ranks between 55 and 80 depending on which formula is used.
“We’re not in the running for the NIT because of the criteria of the NIT,’’ said coach Jim Larranaga. “It has nothing to do with your record now, it’s your RPI. Our RPI is not good enough.’’
Asked if he would consider playing in the 16-team College Basketball Invitational, Larranaga replied: “No.’’ He feels the third-tier event is for young teams looking for extra playing time for returning underclassmen and UM has six seniors. Only four scholarship players who were on the active roster this year are returning next season — Manu Lecomte, Davon Reed, James Kelly and Tonye Jekiri.
Although the odds are against them, the Hurricanes enter the tournament with confidence after winning four of their past six games, including a 69-56 home win over Wake Forest on Saturday. In that game, fifth-year senior Garrius Adams scored a career-high 22 points. Adams and senior Rion Brown, who was named third-team All-ACC, have been the leaders of this year’s team.
Miami is favored over Virginia Tech, but certainly not taking the game lightly because the Hokies’ only two conference wins this season were over the Hurricanes. They beat UM 61-60 in overtime on Dec. 8 in Coral Gables, and again, 52-45 in Blacksburg, Va., on Feb. 15.
“Hopefully, we learned from the first two games and be able to play a lot better in Greensboro,’’ Larranaga said. “For me, it’s a lot of motivation because [Hokies coach] James Johnson is one of my former assistants. They’re a three-point shooting team. That’s one of the things that has given us problems.’’
UM senior forward Erik Swoope remains optimistic. “Every time we’ve gone to Greensboro, we’ve made history. Freshman year, we scored 10 or 12 in a short stretch to beat Virginia. The next year, we went up by 20 on Carolina and they were insanely good, but we lost on a game-winning shot. Last year, we won the ACC tournament. I told our young guys, ‘If you thought the season was fun, this is when the party really starts.’ ’’