In what has become a rite of March since coach Jim Larrañaga took over the University of Miami basketball program, Hurricane players, coaches, cheerleaders, and fans gathered at the campus Rathskeller Sunday night to await their NCAA Tournament seeding, bracket and first-round opponent.
They erupted into celebration and pointed their cellphone cameras toward the jumbo TV screen upon seeing their logo pop up. The Hurricanes were awarded a No. 6 seed and will play No. 11 seed Loyola-Chicago (28-5) on Thursday at 3 p.m. on truTV in Dallas, which is also the site for the sixth-seeded Florida Gators, who know better than anyone that Loyola-Chicago should be taken very seriously.
The Ramblers beat then-No.5 Florida in Gainesville 65-59 in early December, and the Gators’ ranking plummeted as a result. Loyola-Chicago went on to a 15-3 conference record, won the league title, and is in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1985.
Larrañaga is quite familiar with Loyola-Chicago, as the school’s athletic director is Steve Watson, who played for Larranaga at Bowling Green. The Ramblers’ coach, Porter Moser, is a former assistant of highly-respected Rick Majerus.
“They’re out of the Missouri Valley, and anybody that knows the MVC knows it’s not a football league, it’s a basketball league,” Larrañaga said. “You go to their arenas, they’re selling out 10,000 strong. For our players and our staff, the major concern is anybody that can go on the road and win in Gainesville in the non-conference and beat the University of Florida on their home court, that says an awful lot about their capability.”
UM was one of nine Atlantic Coast Conference teams to make the NCAA Tournament field — the most of any conference. The others were top seed Virginia, which is in Miami’s quarter of the bracket, Duke, North Carolina, N.C. State, Clemson, Florida State, Syracuse and Virginia Tech.
Other potential teams in Miami’s path to the Final Four include Tennessee and Cincinnati.
It is Miami’s tenth appearance in the NCAA Tournament, third in a row, and fourth in seven years under Larrañaga after just one appearance in the nine years before he arrived. UM’s best finishes were Sweet 16 appearances in 2000, 2013, and 2016, when the Hurricanes entered the tournament as a No. 3 seed and were eliminated by eventual national champion Villanova.
For the third year in a row, there was no question the Hurricanes (22-9, 12-8 ACC) were going to get an invitation to the Big Dance. Still, freshman Lonnie Walker IV admitted he was nervous.
“It was a bit of anxiety, my stomach was turning, my heart was pounding out of my chest,” said Walker, who barely ate the plate of food in front of him during the show. “This is one of those dreams you dream about your entire life as a young basketball player and given the opportunity to play with such great teammates, it’s a blessing. I’m beyond grateful and happy that we’re in this March Madness, and now it’s time to focus on this team and get ready for Thursday.”
Walker said the Canes will not take the Ramblers lightly.
“They made March Madness just like us, that’s self-explanatory,” he said. “They’re a great team, pretty know they know what they’re doing. They’re 28-5 and beat Florida at Florida. Especially in the NCAA Tournament, the intensity and defensive energy is going to be like no other, so we have to play at our best.”
Sophomore Dewan Huell said the team’s mentality is simple — “Win or go home, and we don’t want to go home yet.”
Chris Lykes, the Hurricanes’ electric freshman guard, said the team learned a lesson from losing the ACC quarterfinal against North Carolina last week. “We learned that the intensity is up a notch, and we have to bring the energy 100 percent of the time. I don’t think we left it all out on the court in the ACC tournament. We’re going to do better. The guys are hungry knowing we didn’t do our best job in North Carolina, so we should come out with a lot more energy.”
This year, for the first time, the tournament selection committee added an additional criterion to its formula — the Quadrant System.
Teams were rewarded for winning Quadrant I games, which are home games vs. Top 30 RPI teams, neutral games vs. Top 50 and road games against Top 75. The Hurricanes were 5-6 in those games. They were 3-2 in Quadrant II, which includes home games against teams with RPI 31-75, neutral games against 51-100 teams, and road games against Nos. 76-135.
It is unlikely sophomore guard Bruce Brown will be able to play in the tournament after missing 11 games following surgery on his left foot. He has a doctor’s appointment on Monday to have the foot re-evaluated, but Larranaga said there is “no chance” Brown will play Thursday. “He hasn’t played in six weeks, it would take him six weeks to rehab.”
Asked if Brown might be able to play if the team advances, the coach replied: “Let me put it this way: If Bruce decide to come back next year for his [junior] year, then we’ll plan on playing him.”
The Final Four is at the Alamodome in San Antonio from March 31 to April 2.
Who: No. 6. University of Miami (22-9) vs. No. 11. Loyola-Chicago (28-5).
When: Thursday, 3 p.m., truTV.
Where: American Airlines Center, Dallas.
Scouting report on the Ramblers: They beat the University of Florida 65-59 in Gainesville in early December, went 10-3 in nonconference games and 15-3 in conference games. They are champions of the Missouri Valley Conference and are in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1985. Their coach, Porter Moser, is a former Rick Majerus assistant, and their athletic director Steve Watson played for UM coach Jim Larrañaga at Bowling Green.