We'll just cut to the chase. Local fans are go-big-or-go-home types. The Miami Hurricanes' men's basketball team's trip to the National Invitational Tournament (the Independent Spirit Awards to the NCAA Tourney's Oscars; the middle-school spring luau to the NCAA's senior prom) hasn't exactly been cause for celebration, but — dammit — the scrappy team has made it all the way to tonight's finals game. That's cause for some appropriate levels of excitement!
Under head coach Jim Larranaga, the Hurricanes started the season strong and collected a signature win over then-eighth-ranked Florida Gators in just the Canes' third game and eventually ended up ranked as high as 15 themselves. However, an embarrassing home game against the Horizon League's Green Bay in December handed the team its first loss, and the Canes would go on to post mixed results during ACC play. Miami settled into "bubble team" status but ultimately was overlooked by the NCAA and became a second seed in the NIT.
However, the trip through the NIT has been nothing but exciting, especially if you're a fan of close games. Miami won its previous four matchups in the tournament by only a combined 16 points, and the injury-plagued team barely squeaked by Temple in the semifinals for the chance to face the Stanford Cardinal tonight at 9 on ESPN.
Here are five reasons to get at least mildly excited:
1. The neat trivia factoid of this year's NIT champ having beaten this year's NCAA champ is still a possibility
The Canes' biggest win of the season this year came when they beat then-fourth-ranked Duke in Durham by 16 points in January in the teams' only meeting this season. Duke recovered and snagged a number one seed in the NCAA and is still very much alive in the more prestigious tournament's Final Four. If Miami wins tonight and Duke prevails, we'd arrive at the very odd fact that the NIT champs had beaten the NCAA champs in the regular season. We don't have ESPN's sports-factoid-research bureau here at New Times, but fruitless Google searches seem to indicate this is not a thing that has happened in recent memory. So that would be neat. Of course, it would mean sort of rooting for Duke.
2. The team is still young, and tournament experience is valuable
This team is still rather young, with only a single senior on the team, meaning most of the Canes' core should be back next year. Winning the NIT this year should give Miami a boost of confidence and needed tourney experience should the team make the NCAA tournament. The only downside to that is that the team's star, Angel Rodriguez, has been out with an injury for much of the tournament — which, of course, makes the Canes' trip to the finals even more impressive.
3. This is the farthest Miami has ever gotten in postseason play
In their history, the Hurricanes have made it to the NCAA seven times and the NIT 11 times, but they've never made to the finals in either. Not even close. The team's previous best results were two trips to the NCAA Sweet 16 in 2000 and 2013, and an appearance in the NIT quarterfinals in 2006.
4. It's a chance to show the NCAA tournament it was wrong
The Canes are considered one of the biggest snubs to be left out of the NCAA this year. Even Dick Vitale thinks so. "Trust me. I know two teams in particular belonged in the big dance. Miami was one, and Murray State was the other," he told WQAM last week. Sure, some may scoff that the only real claim an NIT champ can make is, "Told you we should have been invited to the NCAA," but we'll take it.
5. It'll be good withdrawal from four years of NBA Finals excitement
Sure, it's kind of like watered-down methadone compared to the NBA Finals' heroin, but after four years, locals are accustomed to seeing some sort of basketball team with "Miami" on its jerseys meeting another team in the postseason to vie for some sort of championship. No one is really counting on that to happen in the big leagues this year.
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