Like many observers of the University of Miami men’s basketball program, coach Jim Larrañaga was skeptical of his team’s chances of making the NCAA Tournament at the start of the season.
NIT, yes. But the Big Dance? That didn’t seem likely.
The Hurricanes had lost three key players from the 2016 Sweet 16 team — Angel Rodriguez, Sheldon McClellan and Tonye Jekiri — and with the transfer of Manu Lecomte to Baylor the previous year, it left UM’s nine-man roster with no true point guard. Ja’Quan Newton, a shooting guard, would become the de-facto point guard.
The four freshmen coming in were question marks. Would Bruce Brown be as good as advertised? How would D.J. Vasiljevic handle the transition from Australia to the Atlantic Coast Conference? Were Dewan Huell and Rodney Miller ready to battle the league’s big men in the post?
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“In September, watching our first workouts, I would have said we have very little chance of being able to compete with the best teams in the country and beating them,” Larrañaga admitted on the eve of the eighth-seeded Hurricanes’ NCAA Tournament opener against No. 9 seed Michigan State late Friday night.
“But by the time December rolled around, my opinion had completely changed … our players were getting better and better, and if we can keep it up for three or four weeks we’d be in position in the second round of ACC teams to compete with everybody.”
He singled out the two North Carolina State games as his best barometer that the Canes had the potential to finish the season strong.
They won the first meeting at home 81-63 on Dec. 31.
“When we beat them and how we beat them and how we rebounded, I was like, ‘Wow,’ ’’ Larrañaga said.
Then on Feb. 4, on the road in a raucous arena, UM rallied from a 45-36 halftime deficit and won 84-79. Davon Reed scored 26 points in that game, and Anthony Lawrence and Ebuka Izundu combined for 35 points off the bench.
“To go there and win in front of a hostile crowd, knowing they’d have revenge on the mind, we left there and I said, ‘We can compete with everybody now,’ ” Larrañaga said.
Coach L told his players if they could go 5-4 or 6-3 over the next nine games, they would make the NCAA Tournament. They went 6-3.
Larrañaga gave much of the credit for the team’s success to seniors Reed, who was named the ACC’s top scholar athlete, and Kamari Murphy, a fifth-year senior playing in his fourth NCAA Tournament — two with Oklahoma State and two with UM.
“I think those two guys are the reason we’re here,” Larrañaga said. “Davon and Kamari are two of the best leaders I’ve ever had and they’ve done it by example, by how hard they practice every day, the consistency in their effort and execution.’’
He has been particularly impressed with their defense, so much so that in a team-bonding activity on Wednesday night, when each person in the room was asked to tell another what he appreciates about him, Larrañaga turned to Murphy and told him he admires his defense and wishes he had been that relentless on defense during his playing days.
Murphy averaged 9.9 points and 6.6 rebounds, making 61.8 percent of his shots, in the 10 games leading into the NCAA Tournament. He also had 22 blocks this season.
Reed was the Hurricanes’ leading scorer at 15 points per game, and also averaged 4.8 rebounds and had 41 steals and 16 blocks. He made the ACC All-Defensive Team.
“I believe Kamari Murphy should have been the defensive player of the year, that’s how good I think he is defensively,” Larrañaga said. “By my estimation, our young players would not have developed the way they have if not for those two guys and the message they sent from Day One about the importance of defending and rebounding.”