Strong ACC run could boost Canes into NCAA field

FILE PHOTO: Malcolm Grant, senior, makes a basket against two Florida Souther players. Zach Beeker//The Miami Hurricane

The ACC Tournament is set to commence, and for the UM men’s basketball team, an NCAA Tournament bubble team, it’s do-or-die time with one objective in mind: impress the selection committee enough to reach the proverbial Big Dance.

If you ask coach Jim Larranaga, his goal is to actually win the tournament, thereby becoming ACC Champions and receiving an automatic bid instead of leaving an at-large bid up to the committee. It’s a tall task, considering the Canes, not one of the top four teams that earned a first-round bye, would have to win four games in four nights.

The sixth-seeded Hurricanes (18-11, 9-7 ACC) kick off the tournament Thursday night at 9 p.m. against the 11th-seeded Yellow Jackets of Georgia Tech (11-19, 4-12 ACC) in Atlanta’s Philips Arena.It will essentially be a home game for Tech, as its campus is a mere two miles away from the home of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks.

“I think the guys are excited,” Larranaga said. “They feel that they’ve accomplished a certain number of things during the regular season but they have higher aspirations.”

Among some of the firsts this team has accomplished in Larranaga’s first year coaching the team: a winning season in ACC play and a road win at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium.

But the team has also come up short enough times to land it on the NCAA bubble.

CBS Sports lists Miami as one of the last four teams projected to reach the tournament. However, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi currently has Miami at the top of his “next four out” after the “first four out,” meaning he believes five teams lie between the Canes and the 68-team tournament field.

The 10-member selection committee, composed of NCAA athletic directors and conference commissioners from around the country, does not take into account the opinions of the “bracketologists,” but what they do consider is every team’s entire body of work from the season as a whole.

When they look at Miami, they’ll see the winning conference record and impressive wins against Florida State and at Duke, but they will also see a season sweep at the hands of N.C. State, another bubble team, and poor out-of-conference play to start the season.

A major wild card in the selection process will be how much the committee weighs Reggie Johnson’s knee injury that yielded a rocky 5-4 start for the Canes in his absence. It will certainly come up in the discussion, but other teams have dealt with injuries, too.

Just how far Miami must advance in the ACC tournament to earn their spot in the Big Dance is debatable.

The Hurricanes, without question, must win their first game against the lowly Yellow Jackets.

“They are a much-improved basketball team,” Larranaga said, but the committee will not be sympathetic of a team that loses to a well-below-.500 conference foe at the most critical juncture of the season.

A Georgia Tech win would mean the Canes’ next opponent is Florida State on Friday. A win could lock up a tournament spot so long as Miami doesn’t get blown out in the semifinal, but a loss would mean the Canes would need some help in the form of other bubble teams falling early in their respective conference tournaments.

Coaches around the ACC have expressed high praise for Miami.

Boston College coach Steve Donahue called the Canes one of the best offensive teams he’s seen after his Eagles fell to them 77-56 in the regular season finale, his second defeat of the year to Miami. Jeff Bzdelik of Wake Forest deemed the Hurricanes worthy of a tournament bid in the press conference after his 18-point loss Feb. 18 at the hands of Larranaga.

UNC’s Roy Williams said the Hurricanes, who went 6-1 between their two meetings with the Tar Heels, were much improved the second time he faced them, and ask Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski what he thought about the team after his home loss to UM on Super Bowl Sunday.