Miami's mad March sees men, women programs in Elite 8
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Nijel Pack understands why the question gets asked. He plays for a school that’s won five national championships in football.
How did Miami become so good in basketball?
“I've heard of all the great football players that have been here,” Pack said, “but the basketball program has been coming up the last few years and people respect both now.”
The Hurricanes have doubled down on their basketball success with the men's and women's teams reaching the Elite Eight — and both knocking off No. 1 seeds along the way.
They will play Sunday for the opportunity to go to their first Final Fours. Jim Larrañaga's men (28-7) will face second-seeded Texas in the afternoon in Kansas City and Katie Meier's women (22-12) will meet three-seed LSU in the evening in Greenville, South Carolina.
“The two programs have a lot in common,” Meier said. "We’re very competitive, like a big brother-little sister or big sister-little brother, depending on who won that week. We get that way with each other and I love it. ...
“Whether you’re laying on the training table next to somebody, one player next to the other player saying, ‘Why did you miss that shot?’ — they’re right there competing with each other in a very loving way. I think it’s elevated both of our programs.”
Miami's mutual success comes as it has established itself as a model of the new era in college sports.
Like other programs, transfers have played a major role, but Miami also — very publicly — has gone full-steam ahead into name, image and likeness with mega booster John Ruiz providing lucrative deals to Pack and twins Haley and Hanna Cavinder.
The ninth-seeded women have never before advanced so far in the tournament, and it's been a thrilling ride. They erased a 17-point halftime deficit to beat No. 8 Oklahoma State, beat No. 1 Indiana on Destiny Harden’s tie-breaking basket with 3.3 seconds left and eliminated No. 4 Villanova on Friday after squandering a 21-point lead in the second half.
The fifth-seeded men's run to their second straight regional final has been no less exciting. They rallied from an eight-point deficit with under 5 minutes left to beat No. 12 Drake before posting a 16-point win over No. 4 Indiana. On Friday, they toppled No. 1 Houston by 14 points.
A version of the football-basketball question was the first to be asked at Larrañaga's postgame news conference Friday. He detoured into paying homage to the school's academic reputation and lauding the work of the women's team.
Men's player Wooga Poplar said he gets the question frequently when he's on campus but was surprised it came up when he was talking to local fans in Kansas City.
“I just tell them football does football and we do basketball,” Poplar said, “and we're both pretty good.”
Pack said he and his teammates have followed the women closely during this especially mad Miami March.
“It was really fun watching their game, seeing them beat Villanova, when they were expected to lose,” Pack said. “Making the Elite Eight for the first time in their program history is something that people didn’t think about at the beginning of the year.”
At the start of the year, Miami's programs were in the spotlight mostly for their plunge into the NIL arena. Pack made headlines last spring when he left Kansas State and landed a deal with Ruiz; Ruiz says it pays $800,000 over two years and provides Pack with a car.
About the same time, the Cavinder twins, who built their bank accounts at Fresno State thanks to more than 4 million TikTok followers, transferred to Miami.
Their recruitment was instantly scrutinized and led to Meier missing the first three games of this season through a university-imposed suspension that was handed down in anticipation of NCAA sanctions. Last month, Miami was placed one year of probation after the school and the NCAA agreed that coaches arranged impermissible contact between Ruiz and the Cavinders.
But the talk now has shifted to what's happening on the basketball courts.
Pack, who had 26 points and seven 3-pointers against Houston, is averaging 19.7 points per game in the tournament. ACC player of the year Isaiah Wong, who reportedly has a six-figure NIL deal, had 20 points against Houston and is averaging 17.3 in the tournament.
Haley Cavinder has led the women's balanced offense with 12.5 points per game for the season. Jasmyne Roberts, an 8.4-point scorer for the season, went off for 26 against Villanova and is averaging 18 in the tournament.
Hanna Cavinder said she's savoring everything the men and women are achieving.
“I think it’s cool to see us both doing this together in a sense, and bringing Miami more of like a basketball-school realm,” she said. “It’s just super exciting to be a part of. I know it’s probably something that might not be done again."
AP Basketball Writers Aaron Beard and Tim Reynolds contributed to this report.
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