Other than the small clot of reporters gathered by the bus, there was no indication the University of Miami men’s basketball team was heading off to its biggest business trip of the season Tuesday morning.
The Hurricanes looked relaxed, like a team going to the NCAA Tournament for a second year in a row.
They loaded up the bus with luggage and snacks (Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pies and Nutty Buddies, Cheez-its, Oreos) and left to the airport to board a flight bound for Tulsa, Oklahoma, where they will play Michigan State at 9:15 p.m. Friday in the first round at the BOK Center.
Miami (21-11) is the No. 8 seed and Michigan State (19-14) is the No. 9 seed. The winner plays the winner of the game between top-seeded Kansas and either North Carolina Central or UC-Davis.
“When the NCAA Tournament begins, the message I send my team is there are 68 really good teams, some you don’t think have a great chance of advancing to the Final Four, but if you come out of the ACC and you’ve competed against North Carolina and Duke and Florida State, you’re ready to compete for a national championship,” said UM coach Jim Larrañaga.
If anyone is qualified to offer tournament advice, it’s Larrañaga.
He has led the Hurricanes to the Sweet 16 two of the past four years, and in 2006 led mid-major George Mason on its historic Final Four run (along with UM assistants Chris Caputo and James Johnson, who were on his staff). In the first round, George Mason, an 11 seed, knocked off sixth-seeded Michigan State, which had played in the previous Final Four.
The Patriots went on to beat North Carolina in the second round, Wichita State in the Sweet 16, and top-seeded UConn in overtime in the Elite Eight before losing to the University of Florida in the semifinals.
Then, like now, Larrañaga insists that his players have fun. He certainly does, judging by his locker room dance moves and the size of his smile as he boarded the bus on Tuesday.
Asked if his team has a chip on its shoulder after T.V. analyst Seth Davis suggested the Hurricanes would lose in the first round, Larrañaga said: “I don’t know if we have a chip on our shoulder as much as we’re enjoying the journey. Practice these last few days has been terrific, the focus, enjoyment. They’re having fun but working hard.”
The Spartans had an up and down year, and were on the tournament bubble as of a few weeks ago, but the Hurricanes are well aware that Michigan State coach Tom Izzo is a legend, and that his players will be prepared.
“The Michigan State team runs so fast,” Larrañaga said, singling out Bahamian-American point guard Lourawls “TumTum” Nairn. “Their point guard’s nickname is TumTum, and he’s about as fast a player as there is in the country. Nick Ward and Miles Bridges are about as good a 4-5 combination as there is in the country. Miles Bridges is a likely lottery pick when he turns pro. Nick Ward is No. 1 in the country in offensive rebound percentage and getting fouled. So, they’re a handful.”
Australian UM freshman D.J. Vasiljevic is soaking in every minute of his first March Madness.
“It was exciting to be there at the Selection Show party,” he said. “I watched last year from the couch back home, so just being there and knowing where we were going to go was fun...
Everyone wrote us off at the beginning of the season, saying we’re a bit too young and inexperienced but we’ve proven people wrong and we’re just going to continue to prove them wrong from here.”