Miami, Xavier look to refocus after narrow 1st-round escapes
By STEVE REED
GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) If Miami's Jim Larrañaga and Xavier's Sean Miller didn’t have their players’ complete attention heading into the NCAA Tournament, they do now.
Larrañaga’s Hurricanes and Miller’s Musketeers both needed huge second-half comebacks against lower-seeded opponents in the first round.
Now, as the teams move through March Madness, the veteran coaches are hoping players realize the importance of cherishing every possession on both ends of the floor and avoiding lapses in concentration that can lead to an opponent's run.
“You just realize that we’re here and these teams are trying to win as bad as we are, and we’ve got to play our best every night,” Xavier forward Jerome Hunter said.
Miami trailed 12th-seeded Drake by eight points with 5:40 remaining in the first round of the Midwest Region, but rallied and finished the game on a 19-1 run behind 21 points from Nijel Pack to win 53-46.
Likewise, third-seeded Xavier survived a scare from tournament first-timer Kennesaw State, the 14 seed, after battling back from 13 points down with 9 1/2 minutes to go. The Musketeers needed a game-saving block from 7-foot center Jack Nunge in the final seconds to advance.
“I feel like the last 15 minutes really woke us up,” Xavier’s Colby Jones said. “And that’s what we talked about, that’s how we need to play the rest of the tournament.”
The Musketeers went through a similar scenario in the Big East Tournament, needing a rally to beat DePaul in the quarterfinals. Xavier beat Creighton in the semis before losing in the title game to Marquette.
Xavier meets another upset-minded team in 11th-seeded Pittsburgh, which has already won two tournament games. The Panthers beat Mississippi State in the First Four before shutting down No. 6 seed Iowa State 59-41.
“My hope is against Pitt that we can be better and we can be more consistent from start to finish," Miller said.
Fifth-seeded Miami (26-7) faces Indiana (23-11) on Sunday in Albany, New York, after the fourth-seeded Hoosiers defeated Kent State 71-60 behind an enormous game from All-American Trayce Jackson-Davis.
Larrañaga said he has been preaching to his players that anyone can beat anyone - a point driven home when his team watched 16th-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson knock out No. 1 seed Purdue.
“I’ve told them that all these games are close, every team is really good,” Larrañaga said. “They checked out all the scores. You see what FDU did and (Florida Atlantic) did, and what Furman did to Virginia. Those crazy things happen, but they happen because the games are so closely contested.
“The game is close, and every possession has a lot of value. You’ve got to play great defense and great offense to finish out a really close game,” he added.
HOOD-SCHIFINO GROWS UP
Indiana coach Mike Woodson went into the season hoping to combine the present and the future for the Hoosiers at the point guard position.
Senior Xavier Johnson and freshman Jalen Hood-Schifino would start and the veteran would teach the rookie how to play the point, either by watching or alternating. It worked for 11 games until Johnson sustained a foot injury that required surgery, ending his season.
Hood-Schifino inherited the spot.
Not only did Hood-Schifino survive in the tough Big Ten Conference, he’s given foes another worry alongside Jackson-Davis, Miller Kopp and Race Thompson.
The conference freshman of the year, Hood-Schifino averaged 13.3 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists.
“Basically, we’ve thrown Jalen to the wolves, and he’s kind of handled it, man,” Woodson said. “I mean, he’s been poised. He’s had his ups and downs, man, but for the most part, we are sitting here playing Miami because Jalen Hood-Schifino has had a good freshman season.”
Miller will face his alma mater with a Sweet 16 berth on the line.
Miller spent four years as Pitt's starting point guard and assisted on the memorable “Send it in, Jerome!” dunk - a powerful one-handed slam by Jerome Lane that shattered the backboard in a game against Providence.
Miller said as great as his memories are of playing for Pitt and growing up in Pennsylvania, he'd like to keep them that way. That's why he has never considered pursuing a head coaching job at Pitt, even though he spent one season there as an assistant 27 years ago.
“It never worked out,” Miller said. “I think for me that’s all the better because in some ways I want my memories of Pitt to be when I was there as a student, as player. ... I think it’s simpler that way.”
This won't be Miller's first time facing Pitt in the NCAA Tournament.
During his first coaching stint at Xavier, the Musketeers they lost to the top-seeded Panthers in the 2009 regional semifinals. Xavier avenged that loss the following season with a second-round win, but Miller had moved on to coach at Arizona. He returned to Xavier last offseason.
WHO'S THE FIVE?
The country is getting a look at Pitt's literal “twin towers,” freshmen Guillermo and Jorge Diaz Graham. The wiry 7-foot centers from Spain are identical twins and would be nearly impossible to tell apart on the court if not for their jersey numbers.
In fact, Pitt coach Jeff Capel still has trouble figuring out who is who.
“To be honest with you, I can’t tell them apart,” Capel said. “In practice one of them wears yellow shoes, one of them wears white. Off the court Guillermo has an earring, Jorge doesn’t. And that’s the only way I can tell them apart.”
Even teammates have a tough time.
“At first it took us some time to figure out which one was which,” Pitt guard Jamarius Burton said. “As we got to know them and be around them more, we’ve been able to pick them apart.”
AP Sports Writer Tom Canavan in Albany, New York, contributed to this report.
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Updated March 18, 2023