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    Sunday, July 21, 2024

    Miami’s Larrañaga considers UConn a blue blood basketball program

    Miami head coach Jim Larranaga celebrates after their win against Texas on Sunday in the Midwest Regional of the NCAA tournament in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
    Miami guard Jordan Miller celebrates after scoring against Houston in the second half of a game in the Midwest Regional of the NCAA tournament on Friday in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

    An unpredictable and wildly entertaining college basketball season has delivered an unlikely Final Four.

    Fourth-seeded UConn, No. 5 Miami, No. 5 San Diego State and No. 9 Florida Atlantic will compete in the national semifinals Saturday in Houston at NRG Stadium.

    The Huskies are the only marquee program remaining in the field, with four national championships – all since 1999 – to their credit and five Final Four trips overall.

    The other three teams will be making their debut.

    “The University of Connecticut is certainly a blue blood,” said Miami coach Jim Larrañaga, whose team will face the Huskies at 8:49 p.m. on Saturday. “They’ve proven it over the course of time. They’ve won national championships. They had a Hall of Fame coach in Jim Calhoun.

    “So their history and tradition is great. And you’ve a guy like (coach) Dan Hurley who’s built that program in his image and likeness. He’s a basketball lifer. He comes from a basketball family where his brother and his dad are also coaches. Connecticut is a blue blood.

    “The other programs, FAU and San Diego State, have proven that they’re every bit as good as any of the best teams in the country. San Diego State beat the No. 1 team in the country in Alabama. FAU’s win over Creighton was very very impressive.”

    Larrañaga spoke about his team and matchup with UConn during a zoom press conference on Monday.

    He has history with UConn in the NCAA tournament.

    In 2006, Larrañaga coached George Mason to one of the biggest upsets in Elite Eight history, leading the No. 11 seed past No. 1 UConn, 86-84, in overtime in East Region action in Washington, D.C.

    All five UConn starters ended up being selected in the 2006 NBA Draft. In the first round, Rudy Gay went No. 6, Hilton Armstrong No. 12, Marcus Williams No. 22 and Josh Boone No. 23 and Denham Brown (No. 40) was taken the second round.

    “The UConn team in 2006 was an overwhelming favorite because we were an 11 seed, they were the No. 1 seed,” Larrañaga said. “I think everybody thought, despite the fact that we got to the Elite Eight, that we had no shot because of UConn’s size. Their frontcourt was 6-9, 6-10, 6-11. Our frontcourt was 6-4, 6-5, 6-7.

    “Quite honestly, there’s a lot of similarities now. We’re like 6-4, 6-6, 6-7. And UConn is huge.

    “So it’s an interesting matchup in terms of contrasting bigs versus smalls. That’s not to say that UConn’s guards are not unbelievable because (Jordan) Hawkins is one of the great players in the country. But we really start preparing (Tuesday). We’ll be looking closely at what possible strategy we can employ to neutralize that size.”

    Miami, the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season champs, scored some impressive wins during its Midwest Region run, beating No. 12 Drake (63-56), No. 4 Indiana (85-69), No. 1 Houston (89-75) and finally No. 2 Texas (88-81).

    The Hurricanes (29-7) rallied from a 13-point second half deficit in their Elite Eight game Sunday in Kansas City. Jordan Miller, a fifth-year guard, helped spark the comeback and scored a game-high 27 points. Nijel Pack (15 points) earned Midwest Region outstanding player honors and Isaiah Wong, the ACC player of the year, also had 15.

    Wong, Miller and Pack form a lethal perimeter trio, all averaging in double figures along with 6-7, 248-pound forward Norchad Omier.

    After leaving Kansas City, Miami finally got back to campus at 4 a.m. on Monday.

    “It’s been a very long 24 hours but a very satisfying one,” Larrañaga said. “I thought our team played extremely well. To battle back from a 13-point deficit when there’s an opportunity to get to the Final Four with a great comeback, our guys rose to the occasion. Very, very proud of them. … We’re looking forward to heading to Houston and playing a great UConn team.”

    The Hurricanes have steadily improved since Larrañaga left George Mason for Miami in 2011.

    After reaching the program’s first Elite Eight in 2022, Miami finally broke through to the Final Four this season.

    The Hurricanes believe that they continue to be overlooked.

    “Maybe once in a while I’ll bring it up that the experts don’t think we’re as good as we are, ” Larrañaga said. “But the fact of the matter is, what’s motivated this team so well is that our two senior starters from last year – Isaiah Wong and Jordan Miller – have preached to the team all year long that we’re good enough not to just get to the Elite Eight, but get to the Final Four and really compete for a national championship.”

    g.keefe@theday.com

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