As a Canes alum, I’ve attended plenty of Miami basketball games. I’ve seen the Watsco Center (or Bank United Center as it was called during my 4 years) rocking as we went to battle with conference opponents. I was in the student section during the Conch Game against Duke, when a significantly overmatched Canes squad was running the Blue Devils off the court, led by the calls of a conch shell being blown by a Miami student (Duke would come back to win, after the life was sucked out of the Canes when Coach K stopped the game and had the shell removed). While there were plenty of memorable moments, I attended Miami from 2008-2012, AKA the end of the Frank Haith era and the first year of the Larranaga era (not the most successful 4 year period in the program’s history), and after I graduated I returned to my hometown just outside Philadelphia. I haven’t been to a Canes Hoops game since, at least until a week ago.
Of course, I just missed the best season in school history, as the Canes went on to win the ACC regular season and tournament titles in 2012-13 and advance to the Sweet 16, but I still followed intently. I later moved to the Dallas area in 2015, just after Miami finished an up-and-down season as NIT runner-ups. The Canes had another Sweet 16 run in 2015-2016 where their season was ended by the eventual national champs, Villanova. 2016-17 ended with a first round exit to Michigan State. Then came this season, where everything looked to be falling into place. The Canes had a strong starting lineup returning, and Coach Larranaga had brought in a highly-rated recruiting class. I was excited to see this team perform, and it led to me becoming a part of the SOTU staff. Fast-forward through the tumultuous season, and I was ecstatic to see Miami get seeded in the Dallas section of the South Region in the tournament.
After getting credentialed for the game (Thanks Cam!), I was off to the American Airlines Center to witness the Canes start their magical run to the Final Four (I would be drastically mistaken shortly after). Here are my takeaways from the experience:
Canes Hoops still has some tradition building to do:
It was difficult to tell who was the 6 seed and who was the 11 seed in this game for reasons not shown on the court (although that would happen later). Even if you didn’t read all the articles predicting Loyola over Miami as the most likely first round upset, you would have an uneasy feeling sitting in the arena right before the game. Loyola basically brought the whole school to the game, I can imagine all the stores and classroom buildings on their campus with signs on the doors saying “Be back later, at NCAA Tournament” (despite the fact Loyola is in Chicago, a large metropolis). Their fans were everywhere in the stadium, especially compared to Wright State in the game before (I can’t even remember what Wright State’s colors were, and the crowd was almost completely Tennessee orange for that game). Sister Jean was on the video screen every 5 minutes, and there were multiple mentions of the Ramblers “nationally-ranked” dance team. If the game were part of a cheesy movie script, there was no chance the writers are having Miami run off the court as victors. As someone who truly believed Miami was going to show up and win that game, it was startling to feel an atmosphere that was so directed towards a team I had barely heard of. It was so powerful that as soon as Donte Ingram’s shot left his hand with 3 seconds left, I knew it was going in. The fact that the impartial fans would naturally lean towards the lower seed didn’t help things, but the point I walked away feeling is that Miami can never be on the other side of this scenario. We’re too notable and part of too prominent of a conference to ever get the cinderella treatment. In order to overcome the cinderellas we’re going to encounter in the future, we need a strong enough base of supporters and national appeal to drown out some of the noise. Last Thursday would not be that day, as the Ramblers were too much of a force to be reckoned with (and still are, as they’re currently in the Elite Eight).
It feels different with Football
One of the coolest moments during the game was noticing Manny Diaz and other members of the football coaching staff across the court in the stands. They were totally engaged, and it’s always interesting to see members of other teams taking in the games like normal fans. The video board showed the football staff later in the second half, and I remember feeling like the Canes were gonna pull this one out just because of those coaches being in the stands. It didn’t quite work out, but I definitely feel better about the direction the football program is going.
The young guys don’t have it figured out, but they are REALLY good
Some of this section may be a moot point with Lonnie Walker IV likely to declare for the NBA Draft, but seeing our two star freshmen in person left an impression on me.
Lonnie doing what he does pic.twitter.com/mjsnjiU8t7— StateOfTheU.com (@TheStateOfTheU) March 15, 2018
Of course, seeing Lonnie dunk in warm-ups (and during the game) was impressive live and at court-level, but what has stuck with me more is how fast and explosive Chris Lykes was. When he turns the corner and decides to go to the basket, he is rarely stopped by the first defender. Sometimes defenders accidentally stop him, as he is so quick that he runs into them before they can move to guard their own man who is running away from the play (it sounds like a long way to not give the defense credit, but defenders are literally shocked when out of nowhere Lykes is running into their body). Both freshmen still have flaws in their game, as Lonnie goes missing for minutes at a time every game and Lykes often dribbles himself into trouble, but when they are on, they are special. I’m already excited to see Lykes with a larger role in the offense next year. I don’t know if it makes the offense better as a whole, but it is extremely fun to watch him zip through groups of players a foot taller than him and end up with a bucket.
Ja’Quan Newton really turned it on in crunch time to end the season
I like many Canes fans out there, was expecting our lone senior contributor to do a lot more this season. There were stretches in the beginning and middle of the season where it was cringeworthy seeing Newton with the ball, as it just felt like he killed any ball movement and would just force his way into highly contested shots. He was in the starting lineup, but I would’ve been happy if they gave all of his minutes to Dejan Vasiljevic and Lykes. Then Coach Larranaga made a great call in returning Newton to the bench to fill more of a sixth-man role that he has thrived in earlier in his time with the Canes. That move halfway through the conference schedule revitalized the senior guard’s game, and allowed Newton to help fill the void left with Bruce Brown Jr’s injury.
Was Newton a superstar from that point on? No, but he was much more efficient, and was the off-the-bounce offense that the Canes needed later on. He hit clutch shot after clutch shot (North Carolina anyone?) and the game against Loyola was no different. The Canes had given up the lead, and needed a big shot with under a minute left. We didn’t go to Lonnie. We didn’t go to DJ. We went to Newton, and he delivered a beautiful step-back jumper along the baseline (and right in front of where I was sitting!). That play will be hidden from our memories by poor plays that followed, Lonnie turning the ball over, Lonnie missing a free throw, Sam Waardenburg failing to corral the offensive rebound and then giving a poor close-out on Ingram’s buzzer-beater from 30 feet. It was just a remarkable turnaround in my mind, that a player that I once couldn’t watch with the ball in his hands, was the one player I trusted later that season.
I got my first taste of Twitter beef
I arrived to the arena about an hour early for the game, and Tennessee was finishing up their 20-plus point beatdown of Wright State. Trying to flex my basketball writing muscles a bit before our game started, I sent out this now infamous tweet:
I know we have a tough game to get through today, but if looking forward to a possible 2nd round matchup, let’s say I’m not super impressed by Tennessee so far.— StateOfTheU.com (@TheStateOfTheU) March 15, 2018
As soon as that soul-crushing 3 went through the basket and Loyola’s bench ran onto the court, the tweet became a hilarious take for Tennessee fans. I started getting follow requests to my personal twitter account, and the State of the U account was flooded with reminders of our loss and memes, SO MANY MEMES (too be fair, they were very funny. Well played UT fans). In sports writing, you are often asked to give predictions (although I voluntarily offered this one up) and you will be wrong. Never before had I had people keeping track and waiting to remind me of my predictions. Too be fair, the tweet wasn’t completely off base, as Tennessee went down to Loyola the same way we did (with an almost identical score), but it was an unexpected and crazy experience that I’ll never forget.
Miami is still a basketball program on the rise. We had higher expectations than what transpired on the court this season, but we have to remember it was not too long ago that 3rd place finishes in the ACC and trips to the big dance were not the norm for this program. Without Coach Larranaga taking this program to the level its at now, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to see this team play (even if it was on a day they got their hearts ripped out in the final seconds). As I was leaving, I ran into both Coach L and Chris Lykes, and they both looked dejected, which was understandable. I told them both that it was a solid game and a great season. They both said thank you, and kept walking to the bus. Hopefully next year, both of them will walk away from the first round of the tournament with a better result. Canes fans will be expecting it now.