The NCAA men’s basketball tournament, now whittled to a 64-team field, begins in full force today. There are elite programs and obscure teams. There are upsets waiting to happen. There are All-American players accustomed to the fishbowl and no-names hoping to be discovered.
There are stories, stories, everywhere.
None are more remarkable than the No. 2-seeded University of Miami Hurricanes (27-6), who open Friday against No. 15 Pacific (22-12) in an East Region second-round game at Austin, Texas.
“This Miami team can go all the way,’’ ESPN analyst Bill Walton said. “I’m not kidding.’’
Walton’s assertion shouldn’t surprise anyone in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“They’re a big-time basketball team,’’ North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “They’ve had a phenomenal year.’’
Miami went 15-3 in the league to claim the outright regular-season title, invading the traditional domain of UNC and Duke. Then it bulldozed through three games to capture the conference tournament. And still, there’s some non-appreciation. The Hurricanes are the first team in ACC history to sweep both league championships and not receive a No. 1 NCAA seed.
Funny thing, though. The Hurricanes don’t play the no-respect card. Mostly because it’s not necessary. They just play. Hurricanes second-year coach Jim Larranaga, best known for taking upstart George Mason to the 2006 Final Four, insists on a forward-thinking approach.
“You’ve got to give North Carolina and Duke a lot of credit,’’ Larranaga said. “That reputation is well-deserved. They have earned it.
“What we’ve tried to do is use them as a shining example of how things can be done, through the recruiting process, through the community, in trying to draw fans and get support for our program.’’
Of course, UM basketball takes a back seat to UM football, which has five national championships, 60 first-round NFL draft picks and five Pro Football Hall of Famers.
But the Hurricanes have yet to win an ACC football championship.
UM basketball, with a star-crossed history, already has made a much bigger impact along Tobacco Road. What in the name of Rick Barry is going on here? The UM program sat dormant for 14 seasons. When it returned in 1985, the growing pains were inevitable. The Hurricanes once lost 20 consecutive Big East regular-season games.
UM built to respectability, achieving a No. 2 NCAA tournament seed in 1999 and reaching the Sweet 16 in 2000. But this season has topped everything.
And, according to ACC opponents, the Hurricanes are very legitimate.
“They are a veteran team that has a lot of maturity,’’ N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said. “They have every piece of the puzzle you would want. They’ve got two or three bigs. Not a lot of teams have that. Somebody is always at a mismatch. They go where they feel there’s an advantage.’’
Reggie Johnson (6-foot-10, 292 pounds) is the immovable force. Julian Gamble (6-10, 250) is a mobile left-hander who is difficult to defend. Kenny Kadji (6-11, 242) can mix it up or step out for a 3-pointer.
But UM’s backcourt has become the team’s most dynamic force. Sophomore point guard Shane Larkin, son of Baseball Hall of Famer Barry Larkin, grew up idolizing Allen Iverson. Of late, he has taken to Chris Paul. Larkin’s crossover dribble, full-court speed and stop-and-pop athleticism provides glimpses of that. Meanwhile, senior Durand Scott can carry UM with his instant offense.
“I feed off Shane and hopefully he feeds off me,’’ Scott said.
Overall, it has been a hoops feast around Coral Gables. UM’s on-campus Bank United Center, where seats once could be purchased right at tip-off, has swelled with sellout crowds. UM rose to No. 2 in the Associated Press top 25 poll, receiving 20 first-place votes.
This week’s Sports Illustrated picked Louisville to beat Miami in the national championship game.
Miami — basketball capital of the universe?
Across town, there’s an NBA team with a historic winning streak. But the Heat are sharing South Florida’s hoops stage. The Hurricanes have become that big a deal.
“A lot of people said we peaked too early, when we won 14 games in a row,’’ Larkin said. “They said we weren’t going to have any chance in the (ACC) tournament. But we stayed together as a group. We just want to keep playing.’’
And if that happens, the NCAA tournament’s best story could continue for a few more weeks.