The Miami Hurricanes were back home from New York on Friday, earlier than they had hoped, after a sobering 82-65 loss to North Carolina in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament quarterfinals.
It was their most lopsided loss of the season, snapped a four-game win streak, and exposed some deficiencies that need to be addressed in a hurry. Nevertheless, it likely won’t have a big impact on their NCAA Tournament seeding when the bracket is announced Sunday evening.
Bracketologist Jerry Palm left Miami as a No. 6 seed even after the loss, and projects the Hurricanes playing No. 11 seed St. Mary’s in Dallas. ESPN bracket guru Joe Lunardi had moved UM down from a No. 6 seed to a No. 7 by Friday morning, and has the Canes playing a potential No. 11 Providence in Pittsburgh.
No matter whether they’re a sixth seed or a seventh, or where they wind up playing, UM coach Jim Larrañaga will take the same approach heading in the tournament.
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“I think the NCAA Tournament is really about who plays well that day, are they in sync with their teammates, are they really playing at the top of their game,” he said in the postgame news conference Thursday night. “One of the things that you can look up statistically is how many wins a team has away from home because there are a lot of teams in this country that play a lot of home games and do really, really well at home, not so great when they have to travel. And the NCAA Tournament is not played on your home court.”
Miami — 22-9 and ranked No. 24 in the AP poll — was 8-4 on the road this season and 3-2 on neutral sites.
“I think there's only three teams in the ACC — no, four teams in the ACC with winning road records, and that's Virginia, Duke, Carolina and Miami. So, I think we've got as good a chance as anybody, even though we're young and we do lack experience; but this will be our third trip [in a row] to the NCAA Tournament, and that makes me and my coaching staff feel good about our chances no matter who we match up with.”
The nine previous years before Larrañaga was hired, UM made one trip to the NCAA Tournament. Assuming they get an invitation Sunday (a very safe bet), it would be Miami’s fourth NCAA Tournament in Larrañaga’s seven years. Twice he led the Canes to the Sweet 16, in 2012-13 and 2015-16.
Those teams had more veteran leadership than this year’s team. UM’s youth showed in critical moments against the Tar Heels on Thursday night. Though the Hurricanes had won four games in a row in the closing minutes to end the regular season, when the stage was biggest and the lights were shining brightest, the Canes cracked.
After holding UNC scoreless the first seven minutes and racing to a 14-0 lead, Miami made some poor decisions, got sloppy on defense and let the Tar Heels back in the game. In the final 10 minutes of the game, UNC players ran the fast break with ease, dominated the boards and pulled away with easy layups and dunks.
Tar Heels stars Luke Maye and Joel Berry were a combined 5 of 29, and still Miami lost by 17.
“I think what ends up happening is when the game gets very fast, your mind needs to slow down,” Larrañaga explained. “You can't have your mind going fast forward while you're running at top speed because eventually you've got to make a decision, and at the end, we weren't making good decisions at top speed and they were. They made better plays in the second half in the open court than we did.
“Some of the credit just goes to their players, who did a terrific job, and some of our situation, I think, we — playing three freshmen, first time in the ACC tournament, and we got very, very anxious.”
The stage is about to get even bigger, the pressure more intense. The Hurricanes have less than a week to grow up.