CORAL GABLES — Jordan Miller took 20 shots in the regional final for Miami and made them all, helping the Hurricanes rally their way into the Final Four. The personification of clutch.
A guy named Clutch is why he’s at Miami, why Miller has become one of the stars of March Madness — and why the Hurricanes are one of the four men’s teams lucky enough to head to Houston this weekend and see their season stretch into April.
It was around this time two years ago when Miami then-assistant coach Bill Courtney’s phone rang with news that Miller had entered the transfer portal and was leaving George Mason. Courtney dove into some tape and began looking into Miller’s background. Turns out, one of Courtney’s old pickup-game buddies from Virginia — Clutch, real name Gary Collins — was Miller’s AAU coach.
“The recruitment got pretty simple from there,” said Courtney, now the Hurricanes’ associate head coach.
Good thing that recruitment went the way it did, because Miami has needed Miller this season — never more than it did on Sunday. Miller was 7 for 7 from the field and 13 for 13 from the foul line in Miami’s 88-81 win over Texas, a victory that sent the Hurricanes (29-7) into Saturday’s national semifinals against UConn (29-8). For the season, Miller is averaging 15.4 points and 6.1 rebounds per game, second-most for Miami in both categories.
He helped the Hurricans get to the Elite Eight last season — and at least one step further this season.
“That loss sat with me for a really, really long time,” Miller said of the defeat to eventual national champion Kansas in last year’s tournament. “I had to put it in the past because it was a new season, but having the opportunity to kind of right your wrongs almost and get past something that stumped you previously is a great feeling.”
The 20-for-20 combined shooting effort from the field and the line against Texas matched Christian Laettner’s historic game for Duke against Kentucky in a regional final in 1992. Laettner — who went 10 for 10 from both the field and the line in that game — tweeted congratulations to Miller on Monday; Miller responded with “Appreciate you! Glad to join some elite company.”
There is rich irony in that Miller came to Miami from George Mason — as did Hurricanes coach Jim Larrañaga, who took that school to the Final Four in 2006 and got Miami to the Final Four on exactly the 17th anniversary of that win.
“I just asked Jordan to ask the people at George Mason who know what kind of coach I am if he’d fit in my program,” Larrañaga said. “And a lot of them told him, ‘Yeah, you should go play for Coach L.’ I was so impressed with him as an individual. You know, the basketball ability is one thing but his personality, his work ethic, his basketball IQ made me feel like ‘OK, this kid will fit in really, really well.’ I had no idea he was this good.”
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The Hurricanes were even talking to other players — frankly, with better numbers — than Miller had when he entered the portal. Had it not been for Clutch, it’s extremely likely that Miami would have gone in a different direction. And then who knows how this season would have turned out for Miller or the Hurricanes.
“I don’t know if anyone expected this,” Courtney said. “Clutch was the only one who told me he could be this.”
Larrañaga doesn’t think many people know how good Miller is. He calls the 6-foot-7, 195-pound wing “the most underrated player in the country.”
That moniker might not hold up anymore, especially not after the show Miller put on on Sunday. The 27 points might be a breakout of sorts; it was the second-best scoring effort of his 141-game collegiate career, and by far the most points he’s managed in a postseason game at either George Mason or Miami.
Larrañaga essentially challenged Miller when last season ended to be this guy.
“I sat down and talked to Jordan before this season began. I just said to him: ‘Your role is going to completely change. We’re going to expand it,’” Larrañaga said. “He asked me one question: ‘Hey, if I get a defensive rebound, can I push it in transition, dribble it up the court?’ I asked him one question: ‘Are you going to turn the ball over?’ And he said ‘No.’ I said, ‘Then you can do it.’”
They chart everything in every practice at Miami, as is the case at many schools, and Larrañaga quickly became enthralled by the idea of Miller getting his way — grabbing a rebound like a big guy, then heading downcourt like a guard. For every turnover he had in scrimmages, he had seven assists. Such a ratio is absurd for point guards; for wings and combo players like Miller, it’s unheard of. During the season, it’s still a very respectable 2:1.
“He’s underrated because he’s under been under the radar,” Larrañaga said. “People just haven’t seen him to understand how good he is. I think he showed the country how good he is these past two weeks.”
Indeed, thanks to Clutch, he’s been clutch. And Clutch is heading to Houston this weekend, to see if Miller and Miami can grab a national championship. The underrated kid might end up standing tallest of all.
By TIM REYNOLDS, Associated Press