Greg Cote

UM basketball programs must do what football team did — find a way to answer doubters

University of Miami basketball has an elusive next level it must get to in the NCAA Tournament, but, for both the UM men’s and women’s teams, this doesn’t feel like the March it will happen.
University of Miami basketball has an elusive next level it must get to in the NCAA Tournament, but, for both the UM men’s and women’s teams, this doesn’t feel like the March it will happen. Miami Herald

The University of Miami basketball programs — men and women — need to break through and finally do something in the NCAA Tournament that neither team has accomplished.

What Mark Richt is doing for Hurricanes football, which is elevating the school back to national relevance, Jim Larrañaga and Katie Meier must get done with the bouncing ball. The 20-win regular seasons are nice, but March defines you.

Both coaches have built consistently winning programs, yes. Few schools have a better tandem atop the sport. Four of UM’s 10 all-time men’s NCAA appearances have come since Larrañaga arrived from George Mason in 2011, and seven of the women’s 13 appearance have been since Meier was hired in 2005.

But.

There is an elusive next level for both.

For the Canes’ men that means getting to the Elite Eight for the first time. That would mean winning three tournament games, the first Thursday against Loyola-Chicago. Miami has won two games to reach the Sweet 16 three times (2000, 2013, 2016), but then lost its next game by a combined 42 points.

For the UM women’s team, breaking through would mean winning twice in March Madness for the first time, starting Saturday against Quinnipiac, to get to the Sweet 16.

In 33 seasons with both teams, this marks only the fifth time each is in the NCAA Tournament the same year. Both have never won a game the same year, so this could be a first.

But will it be?

Doubters are everywhere. And they have cause.

The UM men are 22-9 and ranked No. 22 in the country, and the women are 21-10 and both are higher seeded for their opening games, and yet there is a real concern both could be one-and-done — that this won’t be the year for those breakthrough postseasons.

Larrañaga’s No. 6-seeded Canes are a scant one-point betting favorite over No. 11 Loyola, which is a trendy upset pick on brackets across America. In fact ESPN’s Basketball Power Index calls Loyola the likeliest (46.5 percent) lower-seeded team to win of any Round-of-64 matchup. Some of that is that UM, a preseason No. 13 in the national polls, once was 10-0 and ranked as high as No. 6 — back when the Elite Eight seemed a reasonable goal, indeed — but has been a lot of ordinary since. Miami is 7-4 without key player Bruce Brown, lost Jan. 30 to a stress fracture in his left foot. The U’s second-leading scorer and top rebounder and assist man will be in uniform Thursday but will not play.

The Canes complain they are being disrespected by the perception their first-round game will be a mighty struggle. OK, so prove the notion is wrong. Loyola plays great defense and beat then-No. 5 Florida this season, and UM was one-and-done in the NCAAs last year (eliminated by Michigan State).

Next year could see a dip for the UM men, with Ja’Quan Newton graduating, underclassmen Lonnie Walker IV and Brown likely headed for the NBA, and recruiting hurt by the overarching implication of Miami (albeit peripherally, and with all wrongdoing denied) in that national FBI probe into recruiting corruption in the sport.

A nice little March Madness run by the Canes could work like medicine at the end of a trying season played under that cloud. Thursday we see if this team is able to parlay the doubts into fuel and kick-start such a run.

The UM women also face a difficult NCAA opener in Quinnipiac. Meier’s team won its first tournament game last year before being upset and eliminated — by Quinnipiac. Oh, and Meier’s reward if her team does prevail in its opener? A second-round matchup against No. 1-ranked UConn, only the most dominant program in women’s basketball history. In Storrs, Connecticut.

For both Canes teams, the idea of winning two NCAA games seems daunting, considering each winning even one is fraught with doubt.

University of Miami basketball breaking through to that next level — it could happen. I would bet it probably will.

Another March, maybe. Not this one.

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