People in Miami are known for arriving fashionably late, so it seems appropriate that the last of 15 teams to tip off in the 2018 Atlantic Coast Conference tournament will be the third-seeded University of Miami, which received a double bye into Thursday’s 9 p.m. quarterfinal.
The Hurricanes will face North Carolina at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.
Miami (22-8 overall, 11-7 ACC) has won four consecutive games by a total of eight points, including a thrilling road victory over the Tar Heels on a Ja’Quan Newton buzzer-beating three-point shot. UNC, which beat Syracuse 78-59 in the second round late-Wednesday night, is the sixth seed in the conference tournament with a record of 23-9 and 11-7 in-conference.
A month ago, UM was on a three-game slide and looking like an NCAA Tournament bubble team. But the Canes found their groove by the time February turned into March. Despite playing without injured Bruce Brown, the Hurricanes managed to go 7-3 in their past 10 games and are a lock for the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s a new team, new faces,” said freshman Lonnie Walker IV, who made the ACC All-Rookie team. “The beginning of the season, it was kind of hard. We didn’t know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and what we do and don’t like. Now that we’re going into the ACC tournament, it’s definitely a big game changer.
“We know DJ [Vasiljevic] likes to shoot. We know Chris [Lykes] is a great facilitator when he drives. We pick and choose our poison, and we know how to play with each other so well that we’re getting to the point where it’s finally starting to click. That’s what matters. We click at the right time. That’s going into the tournament. We’ve got confidence with how we’ve been playing these past few games and hope that it transfers over.”
The absence of Brown, who isn’t due back before the NCAA Tournament, has allowed other players to develop, said UM coach Jim Larrañaga.
“Bruce Brown is absolutely a tremendous kid, a tremendous player, a tremendous leader for our program,” Larrañaga said. “In many ways, we miss him, but in many ways it gave other players opportunities to step up. If you look at the minutes played, the guy who has probably gained the most minutes is Sam Waardenburg or Chris Lykes. I mean, neither one of them played like Bruce, but the combination of those two freshmen [has been beneficial].”
Lykes is enjoying his first college postseason. After practice Wednesday, he said: “We’ve had a lot of energy since having a few days off. We went to Times Square, went to a few stores, New York’s a beautiful city. The snow is different; I don’t think I’ve ever made a snowball, so maybe I’ll get to do that.”
Miami is ranked No. 24 in the AP poll and No. 26 in the RPI ratings. At least two bracketologists — Joe Lunardi and Jerry Palm — project the Hurricanes as a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
ESPN announcer Jay Bilas, who has done several UM games this season, is impressed with the Hurricanes’ recent surge.
“When I saw them at Notre Dame, they were in the midst of a three-game losing streak, what could have been four,” Bilas said. “Obviously, Notre Dame wasn’t at full strength when they played, but they were searching for answers. They reeled off four in a row after that, all of them seemingly by one bucket.
“That’s hard to imagine you could turn around a three-game slide without your best player and have four games in a row won like that. They have to be feeling pretty good about themselves heading into the ACC tournament. They’re very capable. Their big guys are starting to play better.”
Larrañaga expects a battle from the Tar Heels.
“UNC has the experience, they’ve won more ACC championships than anyone else since I’ve been here; they’re very, very good in tournament play,” he said. “The program, the system, they know what they’re doing. (Joel) Berry is the key to everything they do, he and Luke Maye.”
Correspondent Michael Lewis contributed to this report.
UM vs. North Carolina
When: Thursday, 9 p.m.
Where: Barclays Center, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Records: UM (22-8), UNC (23-9)
TV/Radio: ESPN, WQAM-560