The University of Miami Hurricanes won’t lie. They would rather be playing in the NCAA Tournament than hosting a National Invitation Tournament game Tuesday night against North Carolina Central.
But they fell short of an NCAA bid, so they will try to make the best of the situation. Asked how they will get motivated to play in the consolation tournament, UM guard Sheldon McClellan said: “You’ve just got to look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself, ‘Are you a competitor or not?’ ”
His teammate, Davon Reed, added: “What’s done is done. We can’t go back and make the NCAA Tournament. We’ve just got to play hard. I want to win.”
The Canes (21-12, 10-8 Atlantic Coast Conference) were hoping to be among the 68 teams in the NCAA Tournament based on their 11-6 road record, which included a signature win at Duke. But they didn’t make the cut. Their non-conference strength of schedule was ranked below 200, and their home losses included one by 28 to Eastern Kentucky (RPI 157) and one by 20 to Georgia Tech (RPI 151).
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UM coach Jim Larrañaga and his staff have less than 48 hours to prepare for the Eagles (25-7, 16-0 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference). They must get their players ready for a veteran team with an excellent defense and balanced scoring. The hardest part may be getting them emotionally charged.
Larrañaga met with four of his team leaders – McClellan, Reed, Angel Rodriguez, and Tonye Jekiri – on Sunday afternoon to urge them to bring energy to Monday’s practice and Tuesday’s game.
“The team is going to follow the leaders, and they set the tone,” he said. “If they’re upbeat and excited, other guys will do it. But if they’re not, other guys will follow that message, too, and our appearance in the NIT would be very short-lived. Emotionally, it’s hard.”
He met again with Rodriguez at 11:15 p.m. Sunday “to revisit” that point, as the Hurricanes have tended to ride with the fiery point guard’s emotions all season.
“I told them there’s only 100 teams still playing and we’re one of those teams,” Larrañaga said. “I’d like to keep playing, and I’d like to think my team wants to keep playing. We have so many underclassmen that will be back next year, if we could do very well in the NIT, it would be a great foundation for next season.”
The 2006 George Mason team Larrañaga led to the Final Four won two rounds in the NIT two years prior. He is hoping to use Tuesday’s game to begin to establish better home-court play that he hopes will carry over to next season. The Canes were 10-6 at home and 11-6 on the road this season.
“One thing we need to improve on is holding serve on our home court,” he said.
The Eagles were also hoping to make the NCAA Tournament, but were upset by Delaware State in the MEAC tournament semifinals.
“The guys have worked extremely hard so any time you get an opportunity to have a postseason out of 350 teams, we’ll take it,” coach LeVelle Moton said. “Obviously we have our work cut out for us with a Miami team that defeated Duke this year. It’s an ACC opponent. We know the deck is stacked against us, but we’re going to go in there and give it our best shot.”
NIT: UM vs. North Carolina Central
What: National Invitation Tournament first-round game.
When, where: 7 p.m. Tuesday, BankUnited Center, Coral Gables.
Seeds/records: 2. Miami (21-12, 20-8 ACC), 7. NCCU (25-7, 16-0 MEAC).
TV, radio: ESPN2; WQAM (560 AM).
Noteworthy: UM point guard Angel Rodriguez still has some wrist pain but is expected to play. NCCU features four starters in their final year of eligibility, so they are motivated to win. The Canes have played the Eagles three times between 2009-10, and won all three – 76-42, 83-53, 88-65. One of the most famous NCCU alums is Celtics legend Sam Jones, and the school is also known for its marching band, The Marching Sound Machine.