A giant archway of orange and green balloons, cheerleaders, Sebastian the Ibis and a couple hundred Hurricane fans greeted the University of Miami basketball players as they gathered at the campus Rathskeller for a Selection Sunday watch party.
With a 25-7 record and a No. 11 national ranking, the Hurricanes knew they were getting an invitation to the NCAA Tournament this year. The only question was their seeding, the site and opponent for their first-round game.
As the Selection Show was getting started, UM Coach Jim Larrañaga stood up, let out his trademark piercing whistle, and yelled to the fans: “Hey, when they announce our name, go crazy!”
They obeyed. When Miami’s name flashed on the giant T.V. screen with a No. 3 seed alongside it, the place erupted. When it was revealed the Canes would be playing No. 14 Buffalo in Providence on Thursday (6:50 p.m., TNT), the players (wearing “Made in March” t-shirts) and fans went nuts.
It was a far different scene from Selection Sunday last year, when the team watched alone in a coaches’ conference room. The Canes were on the bubble back then, lamenting losses to Eastern Kentucky and Wisconsin-Green Bay, realizing their resume might not be quite good enough for an NCAA tournament bid.
When their name was not called, the room got silent. They moped away and begrudgingly accepted a bid to the National Invitation Tournament, where they reached the final.
“One was agony, and the other was glee,’’ said Larrañaga. “This time, super excited, very happy. Last year, frustrated, angry, thinking you can’t believe you let it slip away.”
Senior guard Angel Rodriguez recalled “Last year was like a funeral, literally.
“When I went home, I was quiet the whole time…Felt sick, sad, I didn’t want to talk. I was just hurt. This year, it was exciting knowing we’re going to get picked, but to hear the name, even knowing that it was a sure thing was a great feeling. I couldn’t be happier right now.”
Immediately after the announcement Sunday, the team met with renowned sports psychologist Dr. Bob Rotella, a longtime friend of Larrañaga’s, who worked with the George Mason team that Larrañaga led to the 2006 Final Four. Rotella reminded the Canes to have fun, and gave them team and individual tips on how to best focus during the tournament.
Miami’s first-round opponent, Buffalo (20-14), won back-to-back Mid-American Conference titles. Former Duke star Bobby Hurley coached the Bulls to their first NCAA Tournament appearance last year, left for Arizona State, and his assistant, Nate Oats, kept the winning going. Their campus is a 450-mile drive from Providence, so they are expected to bring a lot of fans.
Larrañaga is quite familiar with Providence, as he played at Providence College, graduated as the Friars’ fifth all-time leading scorer, and was the captain of Providence College’s NIT team in 1971. By Sunday night, he had already fielded calls from old friends asking for tickets.
If the Hurricanes win on St. Patrick’s Day, they play Saturday against the winner of the game between No. 6 seed Arizona and the winner of the Vanderbilt/Wichita State play-in game. Kansas is the top seed in the South region, and Villanova is the No. 2 seed. Cal and Maryland are also in UM’s quarter of the bracket.
It is Miami’s eighth appearance in the NCAA Tournament. UM’s best finishes were in 2000 and 2013, when they reached the Sweet 16. In 2013, Larrañaga’s team – led by Shane Larkin, Kenny Kadji, and Durand Scott – entered the tournament as a No. 2 seed and beat Pacific and Illinois before losing to Marquette.
The only player left from that team is senior center Tonye Jekiri.
“My freshman year, I wasn’t playing much, I didn’t really know what was going on, so I acted excited on Selection Sunday because the guys who were playing were excited,’’ Jekiri said. “But now, I’ve seen the hard work we put in all season long, and it was truly exciting to be selected. It’s a great feeling, and we seniors want to end our careers with special memories.”