KANSAS CITY, Mo. — With his team celebrating nearby and family members embracing one another at T-Mobile Center on Sunday, Jim Larranaga said what no other coach in the history of Miami men’s basketball has ever had the privilege to say.
“Well, I’d like to go and cut down the nets,” he told a group of reporters following his team’s come-from-behind 88-81 win over No. 2 seed Texas in the Elite Eight, as the fifth-seeded Hurricanes advanced to the Final Four for the first time in school history.
With the sting of last season’s defeat in the Elite Eight still fresh, Miami’s Jordan Miller responded with a perfect performance, going 7-of-7 from the field and 13-of-13 from the foul line to finish with 27 points and rally the Hurricanes from a 13-point second-half deficit against the top remaining seed in the NCAA tournament.
“That loss sat with me for a really long time,” Miller said. “It doesn’t go away, and the fact that we had the opportunity to come back and make amends, make it right, that’s what was pushing me.”
Now, Miami has a date with No. 4 seed UConn, a five-point favorite at Caesars Sportsbook, on Saturday night in Houston. Two more Final Four newbies, fifth-seeded San Diego State and No. 9 seed Florida Atlantic, will play in the other national semifinal.
It’s the first time since seeding began in 1979 that no team seeded better than No. 4 made the Final Four, so perhaps it is fitting that Larranaga is involved. He took George Mason there as an 11 seed 17 years ago to the day.
As Larranaga basked in it all on Sunday, John Ruiz — the billionaire Miami booster and CEO of LifeWallet — mingled with Hurricanes supporters, players and coaches after Miami became the fourth team since seeding began in 1979 to defeat a 1-seed, 2-seed and 4-seed en route to the Final Four. They all knew the man who sported an Adidas track suit and a pair of bright New Balance shoes. Ruiz has not been shy about his effort to fund a new era of Miami athletics, as he’s made a push to build a new football stadium and has opened his wallet for both the men’s and women’s basketball programs.
Ruiz’s company gave Nijel Pack a two-year, $800,000 name, image and likeness deal last summer; Isaiah Wong, Norchad Omier and Miller all have deals with him, too. LifeWallet also has NIL deals with Haley and Hanna Cavinder, who play for the Miami women’s team that just reached the Elite Eight for the first time in program history.
Pack had a multitude of suitors, many attached to NIL deals, when he decided to leave Kansas State because he wanted to prove to NBA executives that he could play point guard at the next level, a job Markquis Nowell had already secured with the Wildcats.
With his team down 13 points near the midpoint of the second half against Texas, Pack (15 points) made key plays and disrupted the Longhorns’ defensive rhythm. Wong (14 points), the ACC player of the year who joined with Pack to become one of the conference’s most potent duos, was just 5-for-12 overall, but his defensive presence in the second half and a pair of late free throws helped preserve the win for Miami.
“I’m really excited to be in this position with my teammates,” Pack said. “There was a lot of doubt when we first came about what we could do. But we were able to accomplish a lot of things. We still have a lot of work to do.”
Three of Miami’s top four players transferred from other schools within the past two seasons. All of them have significant NIL deals, a popular luxury for the game’s best players.
Miller, who transferred from George Mason two years ago, was the star of that group on Sunday, joining Duke‘s Christian Laettner as the only players since 1960 to go 20-for-20 combined from the field and foul line in an NCAA tourney game.
And Omier, an Arkansas State transfer, contributed 11 points and nine rebounds, making two big free throws and an even more important steal down the stretch.
“No one wanted to go home,” Miller said. “We came together. We stuck together. We showed really good perseverance and the will — the will to just want to get there.”
Miami’s defensive pressure in the second half changed the tone of the game, despite the team entering the matchup with a ranking outside the top 100 in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom.
“I’m a great believer in numbers and I think it tells a story,” Larranaga said. “And the story was that we’re not that good on defense and we don’t rebound that well until the guys realize (midgame), hey, that’s what’s keeping us from being as good as we can be.”
Said Miller: “We just all bought into staying together, keeping that hope alive, and the way we just willed this one through, I think everybody played really well, and I think it really shows the poise of this squad.”
Miami’s win over Texas is a program-altering victory. It might also suggest that the traditional powers will face more challenges as they attempt to hold onto their places in college basketball’s hierarchy as more teams — backed by diehard fans with deep pockets — push to build rosters that can make an immediate run.
“This is a new day in college basketball and when you look at the rosters across the country, some return many players — in our league, we had a couple of teams like that, including North Carolina — and for others, it’s a complete transformation,” ACC commissioner Jim Phillips told ESPN. “I don’t think there is any question that it’s a new day. I will also say that some of these programs aren’t ready at the level they want to be at in November and December. The amount of transition and transactions that are happening in college basketball, I think these teams start to get molded as the season goes on.”
After Sunday’s win, the 73-year-old Larranaga not only praised his team but also said this season’s run — a year after reaching the Elite Eight — is a sign of the university’s growth. He said the entire Miami campus is working together to collectively elevate the institution.
“(Miami athletic director) Dan Radakovich did come in and he decided we’re going to build a seven-story building for football and we’re going to change the men’s and women’s basketball training room and weight room and now it will be state-of-the-art and large and beautiful,” Larranaga said. “And the university is also spending money building a brand-new dormitory. … So there is very good synergy right now.”
Then, Larranaga climbed a ladder and stood near the top with a pair of scissors in his hand.
He began to snip a piece of the net as the “Rocky” theme played throughout the building.
He had already hugged Ruiz, who said his relationship with Miami players goes beyond business. Ruiz also said Miami’s Final Four run shows the possibility that a program can evolve quickly in the transfer portal and NIL era.
As Nomier jogged toward the stands to greet family members, Ruiz embraced him. Then, the billionaire who aims to change the Miami brand stood back and smiled.
“Baby, ‘The U’ is back,” he said. “‘The U’ is back.”
ESPN’s David Purdum, ESPN Stats & Information and The Associated Press contributed to this report.