After a four-year hiatus, head coach Jim Larrañaga and the Hurricanes are back in the NCAA Tournament where they will play Southern California on Friday at 3:10 p.m. at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena.
The Trojans (26-7) enter their first-round matchup attempting to regain lost momentum, having lost three out of their previous four games. Both Miami (23-10) and USC were defeated in the semifinals of their respective conference tournaments.
“[USC is] the fourth-tallest team in college basketball,” Larrañaga said in a Miami Athletics release. “With their size and skill, they are going to be a handful. We’re one of the smaller teams of height and bulk, probably, in the Tournament.”
USC’s offensive play style is in conflict with that of UM’s. The Trojans, who are led in scoring by junior forward Isaiah Mobley, look to attack with their frontcourt leading the way, while the Hurricanes turn towards their veteran backcourt trio of Charlie Moore, Kameron McGusty and Isaiah Wong to generate the bulk of their offense.
“We have to take advantage of what we are good at and that is tremendous guard play, highly skilled at all five starting positions and really great chemistry,” Larrañaga said. “We’ve got to bring out our best. Our synergy has to be at the highest level.”
Miami’s defense relies on that same synergy to generate turnovers that lead to transition baskets on offense. The Hurricanes’ scramble defense led the ACC in steals per game and finished second in turnovers forced per game, which contributed to the 10-win improvement in conference play from last season to this season.
“At the defensive end of the floor, we felt like we had to force more and more turnovers because we weren’t a big, physical team,” Larrañaga said. “We had to create mistakes by the opponents. The more we did it, the better we got at it. By the end of the [regular] season, we were the best team in the ACC at forcing turnovers and getting steals.”
The NCAA tournament is as high-pressure a situation as they come in college basketball, but Larrañaga, who will be making his 10th career tournament appearance, has learned to take a simplistic approach to the Big Dance. This approach has been preached by Larrañaga to his players, many of whom are preparing for their respective tournament debuts.
Only five Hurricanes have been on previous tournament teams, including big men Sam Waardenburg, Deng Gak and Rodney Miller Jr., who were a part of the Miami team that was defeated on a first-round buzzer-beater in 2018 by Loyola Chicago.
“I think the biggest thing is for your players to really embrace the atmosphere, not to put a lot of pressure on themselves, but to really have fun playing basketball,” Larrañaga said ahead of Miami’s first-round matchup. “This is the culmination for them of all the hard work, all the dreams that they’ve had and the goals they’ve set for themselves and for the team.”
“What we’ve learned is we try to help our players to relax, to enjoy the moment and be sure that they’re having fun,” Larrañaga continued. “You have to play really, really well and you can’t play really well if you’re uptight. You’re putting a lot of pressure on yourself, and you’re tightening up. You need to actually loosen up and enjoy the ride.”
The Canes will look to enjoy this ride against USC as they hope to punch their ticket to the Round of 32.