Greg Cote

Hurricanes’ men’s, women’s basketball teams are good. But are they special? March will tell

The Hurricanes men face tough opening game vs. Syracuse Wednesday in ACC Tournament. The Canes women reached semifinal of their ACC tourney before falling. For both, though, it is the upcoming NCAA Tournament that will define whether UM's teams are merely good or something special.
The Hurricanes men face tough opening game vs. Syracuse Wednesday in ACC Tournament. The Canes women reached semifinal of their ACC tourney before falling. For both, though, it is the upcoming NCAA Tournament that will define whether UM's teams are merely good or something special. File photos

March defines you in college basketball, and so the Miami Hurricanes’ men’s and women’s teams are about to show us if their seasons will elevate now from merely successful to something special.

Both teams have scaled the 20-win plateau, which is sort of the default number for calling a season good, and yet there are reasons to doubt both teams.

The Canes men of Jim Larrañaga already have exceeded overall expectations, after losing so much talent from last year’s NCAA Sweet 16 team. But they closed the regular season with two consecutive losses that knocked them from their briefly held poll ranking after a week at No. 25.

Now the team faces a tough path in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament that for No. 9 seed UM begins Wednesday at noon against No. 8 seed Syracuse in Brooklyn.

The winner of that game would face No. 1 North Carolina next, but the Canes must swim through a moat full of crocodiles to reach the lion’s den. Pedigreed Syracuse, though not great overall, has wins over top-10 teams Duke, Virginia and Florida State this season and is favored to beat UM despite a poorer season record. That’s because the Orangemen walloped UM up there 70-55 in January.

One-and-done in the ACCs would of course hurt Miami’s stock on Selection Sunday when NCAA Tournament seedings form the bracket for March Madness. There is little doubt UM will get an invite, but there is a question whether the Canes will get a high-enough seed to at least be favored in their first game. As it is, computer projections give Miami only a 12.9 percent chance to reach the Sweet 16 again, so there remains skepticism whether Larrañaga’s team is better than just pretty good.

The onus this postseason on Katie Meier’s Hurricanes women is a little different. More is expected. Her team has been ranked all season (currently No. 16) and just finished a solid ACC tournament, beating Georgia Tech and upsetting No. 8 FSU before falling to Duke in a semifinal. That was encouraging.

But it also grew expectations for the upcoming women’s NCAAs — especially in light of the program’s spotty recent record in the big tournament.

Last year’s first-round loss to 12th-seeded South Dakota State made it five times in the past six NCAAs that Meier’s team has been sent packing by a worse-seeded opponent.

For the UM women, the Sweet 16 is a reasonable expectation. For the men, doing that again would foist Larrañaga into Coach of the Year talk.

There is no question both programs are in quality hands.

Meier in her 12th season has made Miami women’s hoops a steady winner. Larrañaga ended 11 years of Perry Clark/Frank Haith malaise when he took over in 2011 and also has grown the program into a hot ticket.

But both teams continue to face a tough ACC roadblock in upstate rival Florida State. So do the football and baseball Hurricanes. Howard Schnellenberger created he idea of “winning the state,” including the the Florida Gators in a triangular rivalry.

For Miami, the Noles are still a roadblock. Consider:

▪ Canes men were 0-2 vs. higher-ranked No. 16 FSU this season, losing by 27 combined points.

▪ UM women were 0-2 vs. higher-ranked No. 10 Seminoles before the ACC upset.

▪ Canes football has lost seven consecutive games to FSU.

▪ And Miami baseball, out of the polls after an 4-6 start including three consecutive road losses to the Gators, see Florida ranked No. 2 and FSU No. 5.

It’s true for all of UM’s biggest teams. The road to national championships tends to find a consistent conference roadblock up in Tallahassee.

The key to all of the Hurricanes’ Big Four teams getting from good to elite is the same: Find a way to be better than the Seminoles.

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