Miami upbeat about its Sweet 16 chances

Miami faces several major challenges moving forward in the NCAA tournament.

First, Friday night’s opponent in Washington, D.C., is the No. 3 seed in the East Region, Marquette. The Golden Eagles are well coached, physical and have proven they can beat top teams such as Wisconsin, Georgetown, Syracuse, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh.

Marquette (25-8) is an experienced team, as its top five scorers are either juniors or seniors, and this is the program’s fifth consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament under Buzz Williams. The Eagles have won seven tourney games in that span, too.

“They’re a good team,” Miami senior forward Kenny Kadji said. “They’re a Big East team. They’re bigger than — their guards and they are all great players. It’s a Big East team from a big-time conference.”

Marquette’s NCAA experiences are a stark contrast to Miami’s resume. This season is it for the 2-seeded Hurricanes (29-6). The same span of their history is filled with NIT appearances at best, and even though the veteran team picked up some NCAA experience a week ago, the Sweet 16 is a different animal altogether.

The players’ media responsibilities increase, the focus heightens, the privacy decreases and teams can be caught off guard with all the changes. If that’s not enough for the ‘Canes to deal with, senior forward Reggie Johnson didn’t travel to the nation’s capital after having minor surgery. He will only play if Jim Larranaga’s club reaches the Final Four (Atlanta).

Ironically, Larranaga’s 2006 George Mason team, one that shocked the college hoops universe and reached the Final Four as an 11-seed, also went through the regionals in Washington. Larranaga left Mason, which is about 20 miles outside of D.C., two years ago for the Miami gig. Handling all the personal and media requests only adds to the overall challenge facing the Miami program.

But Larranaga’s easy-going style and the fact that he’s been through this before should help. When the NCAA pairings were first released (March 17), Larranaga knew his Miami team could end up up playing in D.C. (East regional) for a chance to reach his second Final Four. He didn’t mind.

Asked what he remembers most about that run, Larranaga turned to comedy for his response.

His team stayed at a Marriott in Pentagon City, Va., just across the Potomac River from D.C. On the way with a large police escort to the regional final versus the tournament’s overall top seed, Connecticut, George Mason’s team bus managed to hit a parked car.

“I thought to myself, ‘Oh no, we’re going to be late for the game now,'” Larranaga said.

A member of the police escort wheeled back around to the back of the bus and said, “‘If that car was illegally parked, I’m going to tow it, ticket him, and let’s get to the game on time.’ Our guys on the bus just roared laughing and we made it on time.”

Larranaga loves for his players to laugh and has told them to enjoy themselves and make great memories. To do that when playing in the NCAA Tournament is to keep winning. To win means playing with a clear head.

The team won’t have Johnson this weekend, but they can still play big or even go a bit smaller, which was certainly successful in eliminating Illinois in the third round Sunday, as reserve guard Rion Brown poured in 21 points. That should help Miami’s confidence against Marquette and beyond.

It should also help that Larranaga is an expert at simplifying things for his team.

“It’s a game,” the coach said. “We keep focusing on the game and talking about how much we enjoy playing basketball. People ask about how we don’t have any NCAA Tournament experience, but we do have basketball experience.”

And he’s banking that’s enough to get past the Golden Eagles and into the Elite 8.