Virginia Tech-Miami Preview
Before his Miami Hurricanes practiced at his old arena on George Mason's campus, coach Jim Larranaga gathered players at center court and pointed to the 2006 Final Four banner. He told them stories about his team's improbable run and the sacrifices and the joy that came out of it.
Ten years later, Larranaga beamed with pride as he returned to the scene of so many of his mid-major triumphs.
On Thursday, his team opens the ACC tournament at Verizon Center, where George Mason beat Connecticut to reach the Final Four, and it comes against a streaking Virginia Tech team that ended the 11th-ranked Hurricanes' regular-season on a particularly low note.
Even though third-seeded Miami (24-6) isn't the off-the-map underdog George Mason was, the teams share plenty of parallels.
"Our George Mason team had three seniors in the starting lineup," Larranaga said. "This year's team has three seniors and a redshirt senior in the starting lineup. I would say the common denominator is experience.
"We have older guys, and I think they have a great deal of confidence in themselves and their ability to play at the highest level."
The postseason begins with Miami seeking its third 25-win season in four years, which it fell short of reaching in Saturday's 77-62 loss at Virginia Tech. It was a 31-point swing from Miami's 65-49 home win over the Hokies on Feb. 17, so a neutral site seems a fitting setting to determine the season series.
Defensively, it was a huge departure for the Hurricanes, who allowed the Hokies to shoot 52.9 percent overall and from 3-point range after limiting them to 29.6 percent from the field last month.
"We wanted it so badly - to win and to solidify that we would get at least a share of the conference regular-season championship," said Larranaga as his team fell a game short of sharing the regular-season crown.
"I told the team afterwards, 'It's not about focusing on the result. It's focusing on the process. The process is playing good defense, rebounding, and executing the offensive game plan.' We just didn't do that."
The Hurricanes did, however, continue to get strong showings from Davon Reed. The guard scored 19 points on 8-of-11 shooting and is averaging 16.8 points on 65.7 percent and 10 of 18 from 3-point range in his last four. Fellow guard and leading scorer Sheldon McClellan has been limited to 36.7 percent in that time.
Miami won the 2013 ACC tournament but hasn't won more than a game since. It's opened the two tournaments since with wins over Virginia Tech, including last year's 59-49 victory before bowing out to Notre Dame. The sixth-seeded Hokies haven't won two games in a conference tournament since reaching the semifinals in 2011 before losing to Duke.
They're in position to get there again after Wednesday's 96-85 win over Florida State extended their winning streak to six, which it last bettered with a seven-game run to start 2012-13. Since joining the ACC, Virginia Tech had never won more than five straight conference games before this.
"Our vibe is real positive," Justin Bibbs said. "I can't explain it, but our confidence is really high."
The streak coincides with Seth Allen's move to a reserve role, and the guard has averaged 15.8 points on 46.8 percent in the last six games. The team has shot 50.3 percent overall and 43.3 from 3-point range in that time while limiting opponents to 41.6 and 21.5. Even so, those teams have attempted 24 3s per game.
"The resiliency of this team to be able to bounce back and keep fighting and go on a run like we're on now, it just speaks to everybody's character in this locker room," Allen said. "Nobody gave up or put their head down and said 'Oh, the season's over.'
"We just kept fighting."