PREVIEW: Miami braces for stern battle vs. UConn in Final Four

Photo Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

PREVIEW: Miami braces for stern battle vs. UConn in Final Four

HOUSTON — The communication was almost immediate and, given the circumstances, the timing was fitting.

In the moments after Miami defeated Texas in the Elite Eight and secured its first-ever berth to the Final Four, Hurricanes coach Jim Larranaga received a text message from Florida Atlantic coach Dusty May, whose Owls already had secured their own Final Four bid.

Those two victories marked a banner weekend for South Florida basketball. The campuses of Miami and FAU are separated by 50 miles, and the significance of the Hurricanes and Owls participating in the Final Four for the first time simultaneously wasn’t lost on either coach.

“I got a very thoughtful and nice text from Dusty May right after we beat Texas, and I immediately texted him back,” Larranaga said. “I think it’s wonderful for our region. I think everybody recognizes that the state of Florida, and especially the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area is absolutely great and fertile territory in football and in baseball.

“But we’ve also produced some very good basketball players, and hopefully now some of the young kids who watched us play in the Elite Eight and watched FAU advance to the Final Four will pick up the round ball and start bouncing it and shooting it and there’ll be some great prospects.”

Miami (29-7) will face UConn (29-8) in the second national semifinal on Saturday at NRG Stadium in Houston. It has been a banner season for the Hurricanes, who entered the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament as the top seed for the second time in program history.

Miami has been led by senior guard Isaiah Wong, third-year sophomore forward Norchad Omier, and fifth-year senior transfer guard Jordan Miller. Miller produced 27 points on perfect shooting to lead the Hurricanes to the 88-81 victory over the Longhorns on Sunday.

It was a breakout performance for Miller, whose national emergence epitomized that of Miami.

“He’s underrated because he’s under the radar,” Larranaga said of Miller. “People haven’t seen just how good he is. I think he showed the country how darn good he is these past two weeks.”

While three of the four semifinalists are first-timers, UConn is in pursuit of its fifth national title. The Huskies have recaptured the momentum from their perfect nonconference run, and a 14-0 start before the rugged Big East schedule yielded six losses over an eight-game stretch.

The Huskies finished fourth in the Big East but have again reclaimed the form that made them surprise contenders prior to their midseason lull. Their average margin of victory in the NCAA Tournament is 22.5 points, and the Huskies have again emerged as the prohibitive favorites to win a championship.

“Harder,” said Huskies coach Dan Hurley when asked if it was easier or harder to get the program back to the Final Four for the first time since it won the 2014 national championship.

“And probably because, like, the history and tradition doesn’t really — it helps you in recruiting. We sold to it these guys. We’ve done it here before; we can do it again.

“But I think it becomes a little bit of a mental hurdle, especially like early rounds of NCAA Tournament where you feel like maybe the burden of the history and tradition and first-round games, maybe even second-round games.”

UConn has come to embrace that burden. Led by junior forward Adama Sanogo and sophomore guard Jordan Hawkins, the Huskies are relishing this latest championship opportunity.

“Back!” UConn junior guard Andre Jackson Jr. said. “Back, but we never left.”

–By MK Bower, Field Level Media

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