March Madness mania has taken over life at the University of Miami.
Hundreds of fans packed like sardines outside the Watsco Center on Wednesday afternoon to see Miami men’s basketball depart for its first-ever Final Four, jockeying for position to catch a glimpse of the most historic Hurricanes team in program history.
The scene would have been unfathomable even just a few years ago, when the sound of the bouncing ball was the only thing heard in the Watsco Center — not the cheering of fans. But this past week, the university immediately sold out its 3,000 ticket allotment for the Final Four, with many more expected to make the trek to Houston.
It is a testament to how far the program has come under head coach Jim Larrañaga.
“So what has happened through my 12 years is everything has grown in the right direction,” Larrañaga said. “We’ve got greater support for the program … More people are aware of us. We’re in the great ACC. It’s a great conference. And so the students really got behind us very early. And that’s just grown and grown.”
Fifth-seeded Miami is now tasked with beating No. 4 UConn at the 72,000-capacity NRG Stadium on Saturday at 8:49 p.m. The NFL arena, home to the Houston Texans, is a far cry from the small, but charming Watsco Center, which sits nearly 10 times less people.
Arkansas State transfer Norchad Omier went from the Sun Belt Conference to the biggest stage in college basketball in just one year. But the Nicaraguan forward, always smiling, is not nervous.
“[My teammates] trust in me. When I reached Miami, they welcomed me with open arms and they just guide me through the ACC [and] now we’re here together,” he said. “I don’t feel pressure personally because I’m with my teammates I have been [with] all year. I feel good and excited we’re here right now.”
Guard Nijel Pack, the Most Outstanding Player of the Midwest Regional, feels confident too. He even received advice from NCAA champion Kyle Guy, a leader on Virginia’s 2019 championship team. He went to the same high school as Pack in Indianapolis.
“He just told me to stay positive, you have to keep confidence in yourself, great shooters can shoot anywhere, that’s what he told me,” Pack said. “He told me to believe in myself and my team, and if you believe in yourself and your team, you guys will be able to win it all.”
Miami certainly believes in itself, even if others don’t. The Huskies are the favorites to win the championship after obliterating their competition in the West Region. UConn dropped five of eight games in January, including a home loss to reeling St. John’s, but fought through the adversity and is now playing its best basketball of the year at the right time.
“We hit a little rough patch in January, but we got our groove back in February,” senior guard Nahiem Alleyne said. “Once we got into March, we were able to stick to our identity. We’re here for a reason. Now we have just two more games left.”
The Huskies have beaten their four NCAA tournament opponents by a combined 90 points, with the No. 3 Gonzaga Bulldogs most recently falling victim by way of a 28-point loss in the Elite Eight.
However, UConn never had to face its region’s top two seeds en route to Houston, Miami did. Anyone doubting the Hurricanes’ abilities need just ask Houston or Texas, who are sitting on the sidelines as the Final Four takes place in its home state.
“I think personally we’ve had one of the hardest sides of the bracket,” guard Jordan Miller, who finished with a game-high 27 points on perfect 7-of-7 shooting against the Longhorns, said. “I think we’ve played some really, really elite teams. I mean, everybody, I believe, had us losing to all those teams. So we’re fine with being the underdogs we’ve been all year.”
The ‘Canes share a rich history with UConn dating back to their time in the Big East. UConn may hold a 17-8 series edge, but Coral Gables still buzzes about Darius Rice’s 43-point performance to shock the then-No. 11 Huskies in 2003. And when Larrañaga led 11-seed George Mason to the Final Four 17 years ago, the Patriots downed top-seeded UConn 86-84 in the Elite Eight.
What’s more, ACC Player of the Year Isaiah Wong nearly went to UConn. Huskies’ coach Dan Hurley used his New Jersey connection to recruit Wong, who had UConn in his top three schools.
“I got recruited there, and I spent a lot of time thinking about UConn and the decision … it was just close,” Wong said.
But the Hurricanes’ fourth-year veteran felt an immediate connection to Larrañaga and has been instrumental in Miami’s rebound from irrelevancy. In fact, South Florida, an area known for its football, now has two teams — the other FAU in Boca Raton — in the Final Four.
And the next time Miami returns to Coral Gables, the Hurricanes expect to have a trophy in hand.