For the Hurricanes to win the NCAA title, it will take six consecutive wins over the next few weeks. Miami has six tournament wins in the history of its program. But this, the 10-year anniversary of George Mason’s Cinderella run under Head Coach Jim Larrañaga, could be the year the Canes (25-7) get hot in the tournament and make a run to the Final Four.
Predicated on senior guard play and veteran leadership up and down the roster, the No. 10 Canes have been strong all season, earning a three seed in the tournament’s South region.
Consistent guard play is crucial for success in college basketball. Take a look across the nation and some of the best players are senior guards, including Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon, Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine and Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield. Miami has Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan to add to that list.
“A lot of teams put a lot of attention on me throughout the game, so he definitely makes the game easier for me,” McClellan said of Rodriguez. “He just knows where I am, and like I said, that’s just the chemistry we built during our year off. But I think we just have two good ballplayers with great IQ’s who are out together out there on the court.”
McClellan, the team’s leading scorer, will have to play to his full potential for the Canes to have a deep tournament run. He not only scores more than 15 points per game, but he also has the 14th highest shooting percentage of all guards in the country at 50.8 percent.
“The Hurricanes have experienced, savvy guards and a proven X’s and O’s man in Larrañaga, who took George Mason to a Final Four a decade ago,” ESPN’s Joe Lunardi said.
The Canes’ senior leadership does not stop with their guards. Senior center Tonye Jekiri anchors Miami’s defense and is the only member left from the 2013 team that reached the Sweet 16. He can match up with any post presence the NCAA Tournament throws at him. He is not an elite shot-blocker, averaging just over one block per game; rather, he alters shots at the rim, or prevents them altogether.
Most college basketball pundits lead Miami to advancing to at least the Sweet 16, but several others believe Miami will fall to Kansas in an Elite Eight showdown.
The Canes’ Round of 64 matchup is against the University of Buffalo Bulls (20-14), champions of the Mid-American Conference. Miami is expected to easily handle the Bulls. Miami’s offensive firepower should be too much for Buffalo’s lackluster defense to handle. The Bulls’ defense ranked an abysmal 262nd in the nation. Particularly, they lack the size to defend the rim against the Canes’ slashing guards, such as McClellan and sophomore guard Ja’Quan Newton.
If the Canes advance to the Round of 32, they are slated to clash with either 11th-seeded Wichita State or sixth-seeded Arizona. If the Canes face Arizona, it should be a close game that comes down to the wire.
“Arizona-Miami: tough game for me, but I like Miami. I like their experience,” CBS Sports’s Raja Bell said. “I like their defensive tenacity. I like their ability to get buckets off the dribble from multiple positions.”
If the Canes face the Wichita State Shockers, they have an easier matchup, but only on paper. Do not let the Shockers lower seed mask them as easy competition. According to KenPom.com, the Shockers are the 12th best team in the nation. Similar to the Canes, the Shockers are headed by the senior guard play of Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker.
If the Canes advance to the Sweet 16, they will likely face No. 2 seed Villanova. The Wildcats have been a top team in the country for most of the season, but they aren’t a lock by any means to beat Miami.
“I think this where it ends for Villanova, because of Miami’s experience. They are really big inside. I think they’ve got a great chance to move on and face Kansas in the Elite Eight,” ESPN’s Jay Bilas said.
Most college basketball experts from around the country have the Canes falling in the Elite Eight to No. 1 Kansas. If the two teams do clash, it will be an exciting battle of backcourts.
“That’ll be Kansas’s Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham versus Miami’s Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan. So that’ll be fun and entertaining,” CBS Sports’s Gary Parrish said.
The Canes play Buffalo at 6:50 p.m. on Thursday in Providence, Rhode Island on TNT.