By David Song | @DeltaSigma96
Sports Capital Journalism Program
The trailblazing tenth-seeded Miami Hurricanes (26-10) just made school history Friday night, and they have a chance to do it again on Sunday.
After overcoming the No. 11 seed Iowa State Cyclones 70-56, Miami (26-10) is set to engage with top-seeded Kansas (31-6) on Sunday afternoon in its first-ever Elite 8 berth. The Jayhawks are familiar with deep March Madness runs and will be appearing in their 25th all-time Elite 8 matchup.
If the Hurricanes win, they qualify for their first Final Four. If Kansas wins, it advances to its 16th Final Four. The United Center has hosted numerous historic events before, and on Sunday at 1:20 PM central time it will do so again.
Two-way excellence has been the name of the Hurricanes’ game. They are shooting 46.1 percent through three NCAA Tournament contests while limiting foes to 37.4 percent. Miami has forced 49 turnovers including 33 steals, while conceding just 21 giveaways and eight steals, contributing to the nation’s fifth-best turnover margin at 4.61. The Hurricanes’ defense appears to be peaking, as Iowa State’s 56 points were the lowest total scored by an opponent all year.
Head coach Jim Larranaga is the only man to lead “The U” to 226 men’s basketball wins and he’s not done. On the cusp of his first NCAA Regional Final with Miami, the veteran is keeping a wise perspective.
“I’m going to approach tomorrow’s game just like I do every game,” Larranaga said. “I know there’s a tendency to think that this game is more important than other games. But if you didn’t make every game important, then you couldn’t get to this one.”
Hurricane players are likewise remaining focused. Redshirt senior Kameron McGusty scored 27 points against Iowa State, fourth-most by any Miami player in a single March Madness outing. Junior Jordan Miller shot a perfect 6-of-6 for 16 points and seven boards, while redshirt junior Sam Waardenburg chipped in 13 points, eight rebounds and three blocks. All other Hurricanes combined for just 14 points, but that’s not a matter of concern to Larranaga.
“Everybody knows their role,” he explained. “If the guys off the bench score, it’s going to be because their teammates found them and they had a shot they know they can make within the scheme of things. The demand on [the bench] is: play great defense and keep us within the offense, and if they score, that’s a bonus.”
Kansas meanwhile, logged win number 2,354 in its regional semifinal triumph over fourth-seeded Providence to become the winningest team in men’s college basketball. Both squads grinded through a dismal offensive first half where the Jayhawks shot 20 percent and the Friars a mere eight percent, but ultimately the Big 12 Tournament champs outlasted their foes 66-61.
Sunday’s Midwest region matchup could be a duel between turbocharged offenses. Miami is fifth among Atlantic Coast Conference teams scoring 74.6 points and wields the top transition attack in America at 1.216 points per possession. Kansas leads the Big 12 averaging 78.4 points thanks in part to consensus first team All-American Ochai Agbaji (18.9 points, 5.2 rebounds), redshirt sophomore forward Jalen Wilson (11.2 points, 7.3 rebounds) and super-senior bench weapon Remy Martin (8.6 points, 2.9 rebounds). Agbaji has averaged just 10.3 points in three March Madness contests, but Martin leads his team in tournament scoring with 19.3 points per game.
Larranaga compared Kansas’ relentless nature to the North Carolina teams the Hurricanes have faced. “They play extremely aggressively at both ends of the floor and try to score on you by attacking the rim in the first five seconds of their possession,” he said. “When you play Kansas, the first thing you have to be able to do is try to get your defense back because if you don’t, they’re going to score on you fast and often.”
Consistent rim protection might be difficult for Miami, which is tied for ninth in the ACC with 3.17 blocks per game. The Jayhawks also enjoy a clear rebounding edge: they are second in the Big 12, grabbing 37.9 boards per game. The Hurricanes average just 30.7 rebounds — unsurprising given their small-ball lineup — ranking 340th out of 350 full Division I schools. Nonetheless Miami has proven capable of defeating larger teams, as they did against No. 7 seed USC and No. 2 seed Auburn earlier in the NCAA Tournament.