Miami basketball is officially coming into its own and a Sweet 16 win over Iowa State ensured it’s not done yet.
The Hurricanes beat the Cyclones 70-56 Friday night at the United Center to advance to their first Elite Eight in school history. In some ways, this feels like a long time coming.
In a city with no shortage of entertainment, Jim Larranaga’s team has often played second fiddle to the Miami Heat and the university’s illustrious football program. Three straight losing seasons from 2018 through 2021 did little to challenge that.
The Hurricanes got off to a rocky start and seemed destined for a fourth straight season marked by disappointment. They cobbled enough wins to squeak into the Big Dance as a seemingly innocuous 10-seed. Now, they find themselves gearing up to take on Kansas in the Elite Eight with a ticket to the Final Four in New Orleans on the line.
Their Cinderella run seems to have come as a surprise to everyone, except for the 14 players in the locker room.
After USC’s game winner rattled off the rim in the first round, the Miami players excitedly jogged toward each other with a few high fives and celebratory claps to show for it. Two days later, they seemed unfazed as they took on No. 2 Auburn as 7.5-point underdogs. No moment captured the confidence of the Hurricanes like when Isaiah Wong posterized Auburn freshman Jabari Smith, a potential No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming NBA draft, near the end of the first half.
This quiet composure, coupled with unwavering confidence – and arguably even cockiness at moments – seem in contradiction to one another. However, in many ways, they represent the unique position of Miami basketball.
Throughout the 80s and 90s, Miami built a brand defined by polarizing swagger. Think Catholics vs. Convicts, the smoke entrance and more recently, the turnover chain.
In the years since the glory days of Miami football, they’ve continued to lean into this controversial persona, welcoming every bit of attention and intimidation it brings. The university even adopted the split-U as its official logo in 2009, further cementing their identity with the history of the athletics program.
The last 15 seasons for the Miami football program have been marked by instability. A rotating door of four different head coaches, self-imposed bans as a result of suspected recruiting violations and a 1-10 postseason record left Hurricane faithful with much to be desired.
Meanwhile, Larranaga took over the men’s team in 2011 and quietly built a program that could spar with the heavyweights of the ACC, arguably the best conference in college basketball.
Don’t be fooled: this team buys into the brand. Larranaga himself referenced it after the Sweet 16 win, saying simply “It’s marketing and we’ve got a great product that we represent. And we want everyone to know that.”
They just finally have the platform and opportunity to claim it.
In many ways, this team is a perfect byproduct of their environment – often relegated to mid-tier success within the ACC, but surrounded by a brand so enormous and unapologetic that they refuse to be ignored. They’re every bit as tenacious and hungry for success as any other team in the tournament and won’t be told otherwise.
Miami’s postseason prospects seemed in jeopardy by the end of November.
An underwhelming non-conference schedule saw the Hurricanes go 8-3 against a field that had an average RPI of 215. The included outlier on the schedule was Alabama, which was ranked No. 10 in the AP Poll when they faced off on Nov. 28. The Crimson Tide destroyed the Canes in a 32-point blowout in Orlando.
Larranaga and his team rallied to finish fourth in the ACC, good enough to secure one of four at-large bids the conference received. Of their six conference losses, all but one were decided by less than five points, including three losses that came down to a single point.
That momentum – and the fact that the ACC appears to have been undervalued – went virtually unnoticed at home and across the country. Watsco Arena in Coral Gables, Fla. only exceeded 80% attendance once throughout the entire season -- during a one-point loss to in-state rival Florida State.
When asked about where the program stands going forward, sixth-year senior Kameron McGusty said he views this tournament run as a “new foundation” for the basketball program.
“For now on that’s going to be the new goal, get to the Elite Eight or Final Four to beat the 2022 team’s record,” McGusty said. “This is a huge milestone. Like I said, we're traditionally known as a football school. … Hopefully we can start getting more recognition and hopefully this helps for recruiting.”
The Hurricanes are proving they’re built for this moment. Whether it’s an internalized belief that they belong regardless of the number by their name or the stars simply aligning at the right time, they’re sticking around Chicago for two more days.