Miami’s 64-61 victory over No. 3 Virginia, a win that thrust the Hurricanes into a second-place slot in the ACC, made sense because Miami’s roster is full of second acts. Players out to prove something their past basketball lives or real lives never promised.
The No. 12 Hurricanes, who recovered from Saturday’s 96-71 loss at North Carolina, could still win the ACC, an improbable position for a squad that squandered its shot at the NCAA tournament last season.
But they thrive on their shared obstacles and the unfavorable odds attached to them.
Tonye Jekiri (nine points, six rebounds, five assists on Monday) fetched water in buckets so he could take showers in his Nigerian hometown. Six years after moving to America, he’s the key big man for an ACC contender. Davon Reed (21 points) missed eight games after offseason surgery in 2014-15 to repair a leg injury. He never attained the consistency he has displayed in recent weeks. Angel Rodriguez left Kansas State to play closer to his family in Puerto Rico, and the oft-erratic, sometimes brilliant point guard fits perfectly with this group. Sheldon McClellan, the team’s leading scorer, admits he loved the nightlife more than the gym during his time at Texas, long before he matured into the most important player on this Miami roster.
Few believed Jim Larrañaga could build a perennial contender backed by a fan base that chooses the beach and the pool before it dries off and decides to attend a basketball game. You’d assume a program with Miami’s extracurricular activities and heat would attract the best talent with ease. But the program had reached the NCAA tournament just six times prior to Larrañaga’s arrival.
Here he is, however, surprising us again 10 years after he led 11-seed George Mason to the Final Four in 2006. Monday’s win kept Miami alive in the ACC race and offered more proof Larrañaga continues to build a program with long-term aspirations. A top-15 incoming class anchored by forward Dewan Huell, 23rd in the 2016 class per RecruitingNation, will help Larrañaga reload next season.
But first, he’ll push for his second ACC title after the Hurricanes won the championship in 2013. This run is just as improbable as the first.
The same players from last year’s Miami team that finished 7-7 in its final 14 games prior to its NIT berth returned this season. But this Hurricanes squad will secure a high seed in the NCAA tournament after a strong campaign.
This is the same Miami squad that got slammed in a 25-point loss at North Carolina on Saturday, but the Hurricanes competed with a renewed vigor in a crucial game on Monday night. Virginia tore through its February slate before a road loss at Cameron Indoor on Feb. 13 ended its seven-game winning streak. Miami finished 10-for-19 from beyond the arc in Monday’s win over one of the hottest teams in the country.
The Hurricanes don’t control the ACC race. North Carolina does. The Tar Heels could win their next four games (at NC State, at Virginia, vs. Syracuse and at Duke). But they could also lose two or three of those matchups. Miami’s last chapter ain’t easy like Sunday morning, either. The Hurricanes will face Louisville, Notre Dame in South Bend and Virginia Tech in Blacksburg before the ACC tourney.
But the Hurricanes had to forget about the North Carolina loss to even create this possibility.
Even if they don’t win the ACC title, these Hurricanes can help the program move forward by advancing to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament for just the third time in school history.
And even if that doesn’t happen, the Hurricanes might get another chance in the near future.
With Larrañaga, Miami could find itself in another fight for the ACC title. Soon.
The fans will leave the beach to see that.
ESPN Staff Writer