Back in October, if you had told any college basketball fan that Miami and Iowa State would be playing in the Sweet Sixteen of the Big Dance, they’d probably tell you you’re crazy.
Miami ranked No. 12 out of 15 teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference preseason poll. The Hurricanes, along with Duke and North Carolina, are the only three ACC teams that made it this far in the tournament.
Iowa State won a grand total of two games last season, finished 2-22 overall and 0-18 in Big 12 play. Then they brought in first-year head coach T.J. Otzelberger and two transfer students to make perhaps the most remarkable turnaround in college basketball. Similar to the Hurricanes, ISU was predicted to finish dead last in the Big 12 preseason poll and is one of three Big 12 teams still left.
Two teams – the Hurricanes and the Cyclones – began their seasons with hardly any expectations of post-season play, and will square off in the Sweet Sixteen in Chicago this Friday, March 25.
Defeating No. 6 LSU and No. 3 Wisconsin was a tall task for Iowa State, who at No. 11, was the underdog in both games. In their 54-49 win over Wisconsin last Sunday, the Cyclones held their opponent to a season low in points (49), field goal percentage (29.8%), 3-pointers (2) and 3-point shooting percentage (9.1%). They also limited Johnny Davis, the Big 10 Player of the Year, to just 17 points.
Despite the strong defense, ISU struggled offensively. They shot 34.5% from the field, 21.4% from 3-point range and committed 14 turnovers. 6’4 senior guard Gabe Kalscheur led the Cyclones with 22 points.
Their most dangerous top scorers are senior guard Izaiah Brockington, a transfer from Penn State who is averaging 17.1 points per game and 6’0 freshman guard Tyrese Hunter, who has a team-high 68 steals and 111 turnovers.
The Hurricanes had a similar defensive performance in their Round of 32 game against No. 2 Auburn last Sunday. They held Jabari Smith to 10 points and Walker Kessler to two points and recorded 16 steals.
So far in the NCAA tournament, Miami’s registered 32 assists and only seven turnovers. They are shooting 77.5% from the free throw line in their first two tournament games.
In what will likely be a very defensive-minded game between these two teams, Miami is favored by 2.5.
Despite the fact that the Hurricanes are one of the oldest teams still left in the tournament, the five starters – Isaiah Wong, Charlie Moore, Kam McGusty, Sam Waardenburg and Jordan Miller – have only combined for three games of tournament experience before this year, and no games beyond the first weekend.
But the veteran group is led by a March Madness tournament veteran. Head coach Jim Larrañaga has had success in the past in the Big Dance. In the 2005-2006 season when Larrañaga was the head coach at George Mason, he led the team as a No. 11 seed to the Final Four. However, in recent years, the Hurricanes have not had much success. In 2017, Miami was a No. 8 seed and got blown out by Michigan State in the first round. In 2018, the team was a No. 6 seed and was upset by Loyola (Chicago). After 2018, the Hurricanes had three straight losing seasons.
But Larrañaga’s relaxed coaching style and positive energy has the players feeling very confident headed into the Sweet 16.
“Every time he leads a team to the ‘Dance,’ they do special things,” McGusty said. “Most of it comes from not only his experience, but his coaching style. He’s not a coach that’s going to be yelling at us or screaming at us, or making us do all this extra practicing and he’s not going to stress us out or anything. He keeps us relaxed. He’s the one who tells us we need to have fun and he’s been the one who’s been preaching to us to just enjoy the moment.”
Larrañaga’s message to the team before they boarded the plane to the Windy City: “Stay loose and smile a lot. There’s a reason this is called the big dance, because it should be fun. We are dancing to Chicago, we are in the Sweet Sixteen, we are enjoying the heck out of it. But the most fun is playing really well and winning.”
The game is a homecoming for guard Charlie Moore. The sixth-year guard was named Illinois Mr. Basketball out of Morgan Park High School in 2016. Miami is Moore’s fourth school in his collegiate career.
“I know I’m going home, going to play in front of family and friends, but I’m going to play in the moment.”
The Canes will tip-off against the Cyclones at 9:45 p.m. ET this Friday from the United Center in Chicago, Illinois.