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Men’s Basketball: Miami’s uncompromising path to the Big Dance

With the ACC gauntlet just days away from tip-off, what are the Canes’ chances of earning a spot in the field of 68?

After falling at Clemson in 2017-18, Miami needs a New Year’s Eve win at Littlejohn Coliseum to avoid an 0-2 start in ACC play.
Todd Forrest/SOTU

On the heels of last month’s subpar showing at the Charleston Classic, the University of Miami has strung together four consecutive wins entering its formidable stretch of 19-straight ACC contests that get underway next Tuesday, Dec. 31 in Clemson, South Carolina.

Sitting at 8-3, head coach Jim Larranaga’s young squad hasn’t necessarily exceeded expectations, but they haven’t disappointed either. Losses to Louisville, Florida and UConn are not back breakers, however, wins over Illinois, Temple and UCF aren’t exactly resume builders.

As expected, Miami’s season will live or die based on its performance over the next two-and-a-half months. Dating back to 2011 — the year the NCAA Tournament expanded to 68 participants — the ACC has averaged 6.3 qualifiers per year, with no fewer than four making the field. The ACC’s high-water mark was nine teams in both 2017 and 2018. They sent seven in 2016 and 2019, six made it in 2014 and 2015, five went in 2012 and only four reached the tourney in 2011 and 2013.

During last year’s tournament, the final two ACC teams to earn a nod were each 10-8 in conference with 20 total wins. Only once since 2011 has an ACC team earned a bid while failing to finish .500 in the conference: Syracuse in 2018.

In their defense, the 2018 Orangemen won 20 regular season games before receiving one of the last four bids and eventually advancing to the Sweet 16. Two years earlier in 2016, Syracuse would ride the bubble to a tournament berth despite a 9-9 conference mark and 19 regular season wins. They ultimately silenced any doubters by reaching the Final Four, losing to the eventual runner-up, North Carolina.

Only one other team has reached the tournament with a 9-9 conference record and less than 20 total wins: Wake Forest, who went 9-9 with 19 wins in 2017.

When you couple that precedent with Miami’s lack of marquee non-conference wins, it tells me they need, at minimum, 19 victories and nine conference wins to even earn bubble consideration. Furthermore, 10 regular season conference wins only brings Miami to 18 dubs overall, resulting in a must-win situation in the ACC Tournament opener.

Very rarely does 10 ACC wins fail to qualify for the tournament. The most notable exception was the 2013 Virginia Cavaliers.

In 2013, Virginia was denied a berth despite an 11-7 conference record and going 21-11 overall during a year the ACC only garnered four selections to the field of 68. (Apparently Virginia’s wins over No. 19 N.C. State and No. 3 Duke weren’t enough to expunge early season stumbles to George Mason, Delaware and Old Dominion. In addition, losses to conference cellar dwellers like Wake Forest, Clemson, Georgia Tech and Boston College didn’t help its bracketology case either.)

The 2013 season also serves as a reminder that Miami should feel very uneasy as a bubble team. That 2013 Canes squad won the ACC regular season title with a 15-3 record, then won the ACC Tournament Championship with three double-digit victories and still didn’t receive a No. 1 seed. Since then, no ACC regular season champ has failed to earn a top seed. Considering the history, are any Miami fans comfortable placing the team’s fate in someone else’s hands?

So where does Miami manufacture another 11-12 wins vs ACC competition? With the November 5 loss to Louisville dropping the Hurricanes to 0-1 right out of the gates, where do the 10 regular season conference victories come from?

Below is Miami’s ACC schedule where we will select each of the “very winnable” games. These are wins that Miami desperately needs. Yes, it’s forgivable to drop one, maybe two, of those contests, but they will need to be offset among the 50-50 games. Those “either way” matchups are also listed below as a “toss up.”

If the Canes drop too many winnable games, victories must come from the “upset” category. And just how much success can a youthful Miami squad expect to find when attempting to punch above its weight?

@Clemson - VERY WINNABLE Miami needs the W to avoid a potential 0-4 ACC start

Duke - UPSET

@Louisville - UPSET See what I mean about the importance of Clemson?

Pitt - VERY WINNABLE If Miami is 2-3 after this game, I’ll be thrilled


FSU - TOSS UP The first crack at FSU is at home and a series split would be huge

@Duke - UPSET

@UNC - TOSS UP If Anthony is still out, this is an excellent opportunity to steal one

Virginia Tech - VERY WINNABLE

@Pitt - TOSS UP



Boston College - VERY WINNABLE

Wake - VERY WINNABLE Two at home before a road trip, UM must hold serve

@Virginia Tech - TOSS UP

@ND - VERY WINNABLE Need two of these three on the road

@Georgia Tech - VERY WINNABLE The last of 3-straight road games will be telling

Virginia - UPSET Not the same Virginia team but they’ve still owned Miami of late

Syracuse - VERY WINNABLE SU is beatable and you must secure the Senior Day W

If Miami wins eight-of-nine among the “very winnable” and two-of-five among the “toss ups,” that puts them in great shape at 18-10 and 10-8 entering the ACC Tournament (I’m not counting any wins among the “upsets”). At 10-8, they would likely be among the top-seven in a conference that has sent at least seven teams to the tourney in each of the last four years. If the Canes earn a No. 6 or 7-seed, one win is very possible vs a lower seeded play-in opponent. Unfortunately, if they want to avoid any Selection Sunday tension, that much-needed 20th win must come against a top-three seed, who would also enter on a double-bye.

So, from the looks of it, Miami might need one of those upset wins after all — during the regular season or the ACC Tournament. But since arriving in Coral Gables, Coach Larranaga is sporting an extremely respectable 11-13 combined record vs Duke and UNC to go with his longstanding reputation of finding a way to steal one from the big boys.