This evening, most of the sports world will be glued to their televisions to watch Auburn, Virginia, Michigan State and Texas Tech battle for spots in the National Championship game of college basketball. Up until a week ago, both Auburn and Texas Tech were in the same boat as the Canes Hoops team, having never been to the Final Four. Texas Tech came close last year, falling in the Elite Eight to eventual champions Villanova, while Auburn made a second round exit in 2018. Seeing programs like Auburn and Texas Tech make the leap should give hope for Miami fans, after having only three Sweet 16 appearances to show for the last 34 seasons.
Still, the Canes Hoops program has put together some strong teams since 1985, so let’s look back at the four best teams in Miami’s modern history:
Leonard Hamilton’s ninth season in Coral Gables was the first major success for Miami basketball since reinstating the program in 1985. The Canes reached the tournament for the first time in 38 years the season prior, but the 1998-99 season saw the Canes become a major force on the national scene. Senior forward Tim James (18.6 points, 8.2 rebounds) and junior guard Johnny Hemsley (17.8 points, 4.7 rebounds) led the team to a 23-7 record and a 2nd place finish in the Big East (behind eventual national champion UConn). The Canes secured a 2 seed in the Big Dance, and took care of business in their first round matchup with Lafayette. Coach Hamilton was unable to will his team past Purdue in the Round of 32, but the 1998-99 season was undoubtedly a success at the time for a program that hadn’t seen basketball this far into March in some time.
After their successful 1998-99 season, the Canes hoped to build on that progress but realized it would be a tall order after the graduation of top player Tim James. Leonard Hamilton and his players wouldn’t let that get in their way, as the collective group stepped up to push the program to new heights. Senior Johnny Hemsley (18.1 pts, 3.6 rebounds) backed up his strong junior season with a better campaign in his final year as the primary scoring option. Mario Bland (12.6 points, 7.0 rebounds) and Vernon Jennings (8.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, 6.8 assists) helped shoulder the load in their senior seasons, and future-NBA stalwart John Salmons (9.4 points, 5.4 rebounds) started to emerge as a talented sophomore. Miami was able to compile a 21-10 record, but more importantly win a share of the Big East regular season title. Still, the Canes were only given a 6 seed in the tournament, but once again a little adversity wouldn’t limit this group. Miami escaped the first round with a 4-point victory over Arkansas before pulling a huge 75-62 upset over 3 seed Ohio State to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history. The Canes storied season came to an end at the hands of a buzzsaw in 7 seed Tulsa, who were coached by current Kansas’ coach Bill Self.
Most current Canes fans have a vivid memory of Jim Larranaga’s second season in Coral Gables. Miami had modest expectations from the fans and media, but blew those expectations out of the water by creating something truly special in the locker room and displaying it on the court for all to see. Sophomore sensation Shane Larkin put together one of the best individual seasons in program history, garnering ACC Player of the Year, Lute Olson National Player of the Year, and Second-Team All-American Honors. This wasn’t a case of one player carrying a ragtag group on his coat tails, however, as the supporting cast was nearly just as responsible for the success of this group. A strong senior contingent built the bulk of the rotation, with Durand Scott (13.1 points, 4 rebounds, 2.6 assists), Kenny Kadji (12.9 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.3 blocks), Trey McKinney-Jones (9.2 points, 3.4 rebounds), Julian Gamble (6.5 points, 4.9 rebounds) and Reggie Johnson (6.7 points, 7 rebounds) using their wealth of experience to push the Canes to ACC regular-season and tournament titles. So many great moments came out of this season (as you can see in the video below), and while Coach L and company were able to advance to the Sweet 16, failing to make more of splash in the tourney left Canes fans wondering what could’ve been.
Jim Larranaga’s second trip to the Sweet 16 began with a strong finish to the 2014-15 season, where the Canes advanced all the way to the final of the NIT. Although they fell short against Stanford in the final, the seed was planted for success with this group. Seniors Angel Rodriguez (12.6 points, 4.5 assists) and Sheldon McClellan (16.3 points, 3.2 rebounds) were the anchors this group needed to take the next step, despite both starting their careers with other programs (Rodriguez at Kansas State and McClellan at Texas). Davon Reed (11.1 points, 4.1 rebounds), Ja’Quan Newton (10.5 points, 2.5 assists), and Tonye Jekiri (7.6 points, 8.6 rebounds) also made valuable contributions to push a team that was out of the tournament picture the year before to a 27-8 record, a 2nd place finish in the ACC and a trip to the Sweet 16 after knocking off Buffalo and Wichita State. Unfortunately for Coach L and his players, the Sweet 16 included a matchup with eventual national champs Villanova, ending what could’ve been the programs first trip to the Elite Eight.
Who do you think was Canes Hoops’ best team?
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