The University of Miami team bus pulled into the parking lot in front of the BankUnited Center Sunday afternoon, and a small clot of diehard fans applauded the Sweet 16-bound Hurricanes as they disembarked.
They had just arrived from Providence, Rhode Island, where they beat Wichita State in a thrilling second-round NCAA Tournament game. Had it been the Duke Blue Devils or Indiana Hoosiers getting home, surely there would have been a huge crowd of students.
But this is Miami. Large groups of UM students headed to the Ultra Music Festival walked past on their way to the Metrorail, decked in skimpy and wild outfits, apparently oblivious to the fact that the third-seeded Canes are playing No. 2 seed Villanova in the Sweet 16 in Louisville on Thursday.
The Canes didn’t seem to care that it was an intimate celebration. To be honest, Angel Rodriguez said, they players are not celebrating their Sweet 16 berth all that much, either.
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“Shortest celebration I’ve ever been part of, and I love that,” Rodriguez replied, when asked how the UM team celebrated Saturday’s victory. “It says a lot about this team, says that the goal was not to make it to the Sweet 16. That’s a great accomplishment, a step closer, but we surely want to take it all.”
UM coach Jim Larrañaga said he received a text message from Heat president Pat Riley. It read: “Be sure your team knows when the next practice is because there’s more work to be done.”
The Hurricanes have more to prove.
They downplayed it before the game, insisted NCAA Tournament seedings, predictions and point spreads were meaningless. But after UM beat the Shockers 65-57, after the backcourt of Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan outshined highly touted duo Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker, the UM players came clean.
Heck, yes, they felt disrespected.
Heck, yes, they were insulted when they found out the Shockers were favored by two and a half even though the Canes are seeded No. 3 and Wichita State was a play-in team seeded No. 11.
“We kept reading and seeing about how tough they were, how great their defense was, so we came out punching first,” UM forward Kamari Murphy said. “That was the fire under us. So, you can thank ESPN and whoever makes those point spreads. People think we don’t have college basketball in Miami. We do. We’re serious, and we play at a very high level.”
Guard Ja’Quan Newton said he thinks the Canes get overlooked “because Miami has never really been a basketball school.” But after reaching two Sweet 16s in four years and being ranked in the top 15 most of this season, he hopes perceptions will change.
“It’s crazy that we were the underdog,” Newton said. “We came out with a chip on our shoulder because everyone was writing us off. … They look at the Kentuckys, the North Carolinas, the Wisconsins, the Wichita States, the teams that have been places. Now, I hope everybody understands how real this team is and how serious we are about winning this whole thing.”
Winning the whole thing? As in, the national title?
“Yes,” replied Newton. “Now that we’re here, in the Sweet 16, I think we can win it all, honestly.”
Rodriguez, whose gutsy play and 28 points led the Canes over the Shockers, was a bit more measured in his comments. But he made it clear that he is not satisfied reaching the Sweet 16.
“It feels great to advance to the Sweet 16, but honestly, the way I’m feeling right now is that getting here gave me a lot more fuel than what I had, and I know the whole team feels the same way, that we can achieve more,” he said. “The motivation is even higher now.”
The Hurricanes (27-7) will face a Villanova team that is 31-5 and has been ranked in the top 5 most of the season. The Wildcats beat No. 7 seed Iowa 87-68 on Sunday. Like Wichita State, the Wildcats are known for their guard play, their passing, and they made 10 of 19 three-pointers against Iowa.
“I haven’t had a chance to scout them yet, but I’m sure it’s going to be a great matchup, like all of them are,” Rodriguez said. “It’s March.”
The 2013 UM team lost to Marquette in the Sweet 16. The only player left from that team is center Tonye Jekiri.
When that team returned to the UM campus, Hurricanes fans cheered as the players and coaches got off the bus. Larrañaga said that day: “We hope this is the first of many years like this, and that we can repeat the magic.”
His wish was granted. Here they are again.