Thursday, February 22, 2018
Sports

Miami's ACC success special heading to NCAA

The league was supposed to be too big for them. Compared to the blue bloods of the ACC, little old Miami never stood a chance.

The coach was supposed to be too grand­fatherly. Compared to the legends on parade, Jim Larranaga was supposed to be too small a fish in too big a pond.

The program was supposed to be ordinary. After all, Miami was a football school in a basket­ball conference. No one was ready for this.

And yet, there they stand, the new champions of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

They have outlasted them all, these Hurricanes. Miami, the last team anyone would suspect, had taken Duke and North Carolina and N.C. State and the rest of this league of royalty by the neck and held on.

And for it, they got … a No. 2 seed.

A No. 2? Are you kidding me? In the history of the ACC, no team had ever won the regular-season title and the tournament and not finished with a No. 1 seed. What in the name of Michael Jordan and David Thompson and Ralph Sampson is going on here?

In some ways, it shows that maybe Miami still has some disbelievers in the midst. And maybe that's good, too. There is something about these Hurricanes that seems to take it personally when people doubt.

And, oh, do people doubt. After all, UM has never been much more than an afterthought in the ACC. Consider the previous eight seasons in which the Hurricanes have been tied for sixth, and tied for seventh, and 12th, and tied for fifth, and tied for seventh, and 12th, and ninth, and sixth.

There is a whole lot of ordinary there, four NITs and an NCAA appearance that lasted all of two games. It was certainly not enough to expect a team to rattle the foundations of America's most honored conference.

This is why college basketball is so much fun. There is always a team that establishes itself as a cut above. There is always a team that turns over the table of what is expected and what is not.

Who, outside of Larranaga, would ever have expected this? It was Larranaga, remember, whose decision to go to UM was questioned so severely two years ago. He had things going at George Mason, after all, with five straight NCAA appearances. At age 61, why should he leave a comfortable situation to take over an also-ran program that served as fodder for the resumes of Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams?

"I'm crazy,'' Larranaga said back then.

Actually, Larranaga was shrewd. In the ACC, he saw a league where half the teams had replaced coaches.

"I saw a league going through a transition period," he told the Miami Herald earlier this season. "If we were able to recruit well, we could do some damage in this conference. It seemed like an opportunity to come in and succeed very quickly.''

He did. Although Miami (27-6) lost its second game this season to Florida Gulf Coast, the Hurricanes were ready by the time the ACC schedule came around. They beat Duke by 27. They beat North Carolina by 26. They beat FSU by 24. They finished 15-3 in a league that, by most standards, is still pretty darn good.

Odd. Back in 1985, when UM resurrected its basketball program after 14 years, you might have sworn you could have seen a day like this … if not for the wall on the other side of the bleachers.

Back then, the Hurricanes played in the old Knight Center, with bleachers on one side and, well, nothing on the other. It seemed like basketball slightly off-kilter. UM seemed like sort of a half-completed team in a half-completed arena.

The growing pains were difficult. UM played as an independent for six years without being anything special. It spent 14 seasons in the Big East, including seasons of 1-17 and 0-18. It finally made the NCAAs in three of four seasons, including a Sweet 16, but that didn't last. Then came eight seasons in the ACC with little reason to brag.

Now, it stands on top of the ACC, on top of Duke and North Carolina and the rest.

Today, you could quibble. You could try to argue Miami's success in the ACC against that of Gonzaga or Kansas or Indiana. But the truth is, the top four overall seeds seem about right. The top four No. 2s, too.

Even from there, however, the Miami story is special. It's the story of a program that finally caught up to the ACC and took home its trophies. It's the story of an old coach and new blood.

Finally, after all this time, the Hurricanes have torn down the wall. From here, the view is endless.

The possibilities, too.

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