Led by a class of seniors loaded with experience competing in the rigorous ACC, the Miami Hurricanes have returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since winning the regular-season conference championship in 2013, earning the third seed in the South Region and a date with the MAC champion Buffalo Bulls in Providence, R.I. in the Round of 64 of the Big Dance on Thursday evening.
There was not a single team in the country which appeared to fly as low under the radar as Miami did, compiling a 25-7 record and a ranking of No. 10 in the final AP Poll with little fanfare.
Head coach Jim Larranaga's squad is pioneered by a dynamic cast of seniors, piloted by point guard Angel Rodriguez, a brilliant floor general who posted 11.7 points, 4.4 assists, and 1.5 steals in 29.7 minutes per game.
Considered by many to be one of the steadiest point guards in the nation, the 5'11", Puerto Rico-native draws comparisons to fellow countryman J.J. Barea in the way that he carries himself fearlessly on the floor, his game predicated upon penetrating through larger defenders and creating open looks for his teammates.
Senior shooting guard Sheldon McClellan is undeniably the most effective scorer on the team, leading the Hurricanes with an average of 15.8 points per contest.
The 6'5", 205-pounder shot an exceptional mark from the field for a high-volume shooter, connecting on 50% of his attempts, and he is also considered a lethal option from deep, hitting 39% of his shots from beyond the arc.
Look out for McClellan when the stakes are at their highest as well, as the Houston native scored a season-high 27 points on 10-12 shooting in a resumé-boosting blowout victory over the Utah Utes, a fellow third seed in the tournament, in November.
Rounding out the dominant senior trifecta is Tonye Jekiri, one of the most formidable low-post defenders in the field.
The 7-footer averaged 8.0 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks per game for Miami in 2015-16, proving to be a tremendous swiper of the glass, a capable offensive option in the low post, and a scary sight for opposing penetrating guards on the defensive end.
Jekiri is perhaps the biggest X-factor for the Hurricanes, as the likes of the Arizona Wildcats' Ryan Anderson and Kaleb Tarczewski and the Villanova Wildcats' Daniel Ochefu lie in the team's path in the post.
If Jekiri can stay out of foul trouble while proving himself as a reliable offensive asset, Miami should expect to roll through the first weekend of the tournament.
Miami is undoubtedly battle-tested, which bodes well for them entering the tournament.
The team's resumé boasts a plethora of marvelous victories, underlining their readiness to take on the challenges that their South Region opponents will bring.
The Hurricanes challenged themselves with a stacked non-conference slate, which included wins over tournament teams Utah and the Butler Bulldogs in addition to trumping the Florida Gators, Nebraska Cornhuskers, and Princeton Tigers.
Their resumé was solidified with their performance in ACC play, which featured a 64-61 win over the Virginia Cavaliers, the first seed in the Midwest Region, on February 22, an eight-point victory over the then-No. 11 Louisville Cardinals five days later, a two-game sweep of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, and a double-digit win over the Duke Blue Devils in January.
However, the Hurricanes' in-conference slate did not come without road woes. The team suffered all five of its ACC losses away from home, winning just four of their nine games away from the BankUnited Center in Coral Gables, Fl., including a 96-71 drubbing at the hands of the North Carolina Tar Heels on February 20.
Miami bounced back admirably following that woeful defeat, however, the team will have to rid itself of the jitters that have followed them away from home in order to emerge from Providence unscathed.
How Long Will Miami's Tournament Run Last?
If junior forward Davon Reed (11.3 points per game) and sophomore guard Ja'Quan Newton (11.1 points per game) can assist their seniors in the scoring category at a consistent rate, the Hurricanes are capable of being one of the last eight teams standing come March 26.
According to the Basketball Power Index, Miami has a 40% chance of reaching the Sweet Sixteen, a proposition which the team should fulfill, firing its way past Buffalo before defeating sixth-seeded Arizona via a dominance on the wings (expect McClellan and Reed to have a magnanimous impact) in the Round of 32.
Assuming second-seeded Villanova reaches the Sweet Sixteen, the Hurricanes will need to harness a tremendous effort from the likes of Rodriguez and Newton to quell a superlative group of Wildcat guards.
However, the critical deciding factor in this game will come on the boards, where Jekiri's strength in this regard should carry Miami to the Elite Eight.