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Boston Herald
Boston Herald
1 Apr 2023
Tribune News Service

NextImg:Dave Hyde: Can Miami and FAU shock the basketball world again at Final Four?

Among the thousand-odd texts filling Miami coach Jim Larrañaga’s phone in the moments after making the Final Four last Sunday, one stood out for its uniqueness.

“Congrats, see you in Houston!” Florida Atlantic University men’s basketball coach Dusty May wrote.

Larrañaga texted back, “Looking forward to it!”

Here they were Friday, too. Practicing in the 70,000-seat NRG Stadium where the NFL’s Houston Texans play. Answering national media questions. Sitting on the biggest stage in college basketball and, well, looking comfortable.

“I’m having fun,’’ May said.

FAU is the national surprise, a small-name school having a big moment. Miami is so known as a football school Larrañaga was jokingly asked if he feared football coach Mario Cristobal might recruit 6-foot-7 center Norchad Omier.

“I hadn’t thought of that,’ Larrañaga said, laughing.

The rub-your-eyes aspect for a sports market that’s never had a Final Four team suddenly to have two such teams was summed up by FAU senior guard Michael Forrest. He spoke for all of us, saying, “I never thought I’d be here. It wasn’t even a thought.”

Today’s question: Does this fantasy Final Four have a miracle finish to it? Can Florida Atlantic beat San Diego State on Saturday and Miami win against Connecticut? Could the championship game that will be watched by millions be the same matchup that couldn’t fill FAU’s 2,900-seat stadium when played last season?

“We’re not getting ahead of ourselves by thinking what’s next,’ May said.

He can’t. But we can. Miami and FAU making the Final Four together is the biggest surprise in South Florida sports history. If they go to the final it would rocket to the biggest surprise in NCAA Tournament history.

“Do you know the last time one state had two teams in the (championship game)?” Larrañaga was asked this week.

“I don’t,’ he said.

Cincinnati beat Ohio State for the national title in an all-Ohio final in 1961. But they were powerhouses, having been in the 1960 Final Four, too. FAU had never won a tournament game before this. Miami has won seven tournament games in the past two years compared to eight in its previous history. Now look at them.

“An unconventional Final Four,’ Larrañaga said, noting no top-30 recruits, no McDonald’s All-America high school players — and, well, FAU, Miami and San Diego State. “There’s just one blue-blood in Connecticut.”

Connecticut is playing like basketball royalty, too. It became the 10th team this century to have four double-digit wins to reach the Final Four. Eight of those teams played for the title game. Six of them won it. That’s what Miami is up against Saturday.

Connecticut is also shooting 41.9 percent from 3-point range and has a middle of 6-foot-9 Adama Sanogo and, behind him, 7-2 Donovan Clingan. Is this the game Miami’s lack of height becomes a problem? Can Omier shoulder this burden?

“Norchad’s an undersized big man [at 6-7], but he’s competed against big guys throughout the season,’ Larranaga said. “Duke has two 7-footers in their lineup. Carolina has Armando Bacot. And Wake Forest has huge guys. Virginia has [players] like 6′11″, 7-foot. So he’s faced size. He’s learned how to attack it.”

Florida Atlantic has size in 7-2 Vladislav Goldin. The question is if it has flexed the kind of muscle that San Diego State brings along the front line. How to prepare for that?

“I think you schedule a Tennessee Volunteers in the NCAA Tournament and do it recently as well,’ May said of the Owls’ win last Saturday “I think that helped prepare our guys. It’s a mindset. Our expression is you’re either the hammer or the nail despite your size. Both teams are probably going to be the hammer on Saturday night.”

Both Miami and Florida Atlantic are underdogs in this game. But then they’ve been underdogs in six of their past seven tournament games (FAU vs No. 16 seed Farleigh Dickinson in the second round was the outlier).

“Don’t pick us, we’re fine with that,’ Larrañaga said of being a 5.5-point underdog to Connecticut.

“We’ll take our chances,’ May said of being a 2-point underdog.

FAU and Miami last played in November 2021 in Boca Raton. Miami had needed a game a couple years earlier. May agreed to it on the condition Miami return a home game to FAU.

“The first half, we weren’t ready for that moment,’ May said. “It was essentially the same group for us, but we were young and inexperienced for that kind of atmosphere. The second half we played like we belonged.”

Miami’s Isaiah Wong made a shot at the buzzer to win it 68-66.

“I left thinking [FAU] was going to be a very good team,’ Larrañaga said.

That game had 2,772 fans. If they meet Monday, the crowd would be more than 70,000. As May said, the teams aren’t looking ahead like that. As Forrest said, “I never thought I’d be here.”

No one thought they’d be here together. But everyone in South Florida is rooting for the biggest shock of all, the one nobody even thought of to see coming: Miami and Florida Atlantic for the national title? Does anyone still believe in miracles?