Miami could add to March’s madness

It’s tough to paint the best team in the high-falutin’ ACC as Cinderella, but being the ACC’s best didn’t render Miami a raging favorite. Everyone picked Duke, which was beaten Friday night by Maryland, over the No. 1 seed. Yet the still-alive Hurricanes bear the look of a team that can win a lot of games not just in this tournament but in the next.

Five of the top seven Hurricanes are seniors, and in the days of one-and-done we rarely see a team this skilled and this seasoned. Miami also has a sophomore guard — Shane Larkin, son of the baseball Hall of Famer Barry — who, to invoke a baseball quote, is the straw that stirs the drink.

“We have five seniors who are basically starters,” coach Jim Larranaga said Friday, just after Miami outscored Boston College 14-3 over the final 3:01 to turn a tie game into a rather emphatic 69-58 victory. “But adding Shane Larkin to that group adds an element that allows all of them to play better.”

Larkin scored 20 points and made four assists, and his baseline 3-pointer off an inbounds play inside the final two minutes was the biggest shot of a grinding game. Which is another reason to like the Hurricanes as the second half of March unfolds: They can win grinding games, tournament-style games.

Miami is big — three key players are least 6-foot-10 – but also quick enough to defend on the perimeter. Larkin, who helped limit BC’s Olivier Hanlan to 27 fewer points than he managed against Georgia Tech on Thursday, drew the most votes for the ACC all-defensive team. Teammate Durand Scott was named the league’s defensive player of the year.

Boston College, it must be said, had Miami going for a goodly part of the game. The Eagles fell behind early again — they trailed 15-4 a day after trailing Tech 15-0 — but again led at the half. Miami righted itself and scored 44 second-half points, which is a lot against BC. “We couldn’t stop them,” Eagles coach Steve Donahue said. “They got whatever they wanted.”

Said Larkin: “We have a lot of experience. We didn’t wilter.”(Note: “Wilter” would seem to be an inspired mash-up of “wilt” and “falter.” To its credit, Miami did neither.)

Let’s recap: Miami has seniors and size, and it can play both defense and offense. Anything else?

Why, yes. Larranaga famously took George Mason to the 2006 Final Four. He knows the way, and his second-half tactics were the difference Friday. “We put (center) Kenny Kadji in the high post, and we told Shane and Durand to get us into our offensive sets quicker and to attack off the dribble.”

Because Miami wasn’t expected to be half this good, full credit for going 15-3 in the ACC regular season has been halting. Yes, it beat Duke by 27 points and North Carolina by 26, but it also lost an exhibition to St. Leo (!) and pre-conference games to Florida Gulf Coast and Indiana State. And then, just after it worked its way to No. 2 in the Associated Press poll, it lost by 15 points at Wake Forest and at home to Georgia Tech.

Pregame speculation here was that Miami had to beat Boston College or fall to a No. 3 seed in the Big Dance. But Miami didn’t go 15-3 against the ACC by accident. This is a good-looking team that could well wind up playing in the Georgia Dome three weeks hence, and wouldn’t that be a cosmic hoot?

Remember when Pete Rozelle had to hand the Vince Lombardi trophy to Al Davis even as the Raiders were suing the NFL? If the Hurricanes advance to the Final Four, a similar subplot will be brewing.

As we know, the Miami football program has been under NCAA scrutiny for hundreds of years. (Slight exaggeration, but you get the idea.) The NCAA recently was forced to admit that it had bungled its investigation — but that it still plans to penalize the Hurricanes. Miami president Donna Shalala, once the Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Clinton Administration, released back-to-back statements expressing shock and outrage. “We have suffered enough,” she contended.

On Friday, Shalala sat in on Larranaga’s postgame briefing and seemed in a much merrier mood. After the session ended, someone who works in Atlanta wondered if she’d given any thought to the incongruity of possibly being handed a national championship plaque by the organization that has drawn her scorn.

“One game at a time,” Shalala said. “I’ve learned that from Jim.”