The rest of the nation might not be overjoyed at the thought of the University of Miami in the Final Four along with other newcomers Florida Atlantic and San Diego State.
But the Miami Hurricanes faithful were euphoric early Wednesday afternoon when the team buses pulled out from campus to the airport, bound for Houston, where the fifth-seeded Canes take on No. 4 Connecticut at the 72,000-seat NRG Stadium on Saturday night.
Hundreds of fans showed up for the sendoff. They cheered from the Watsco Center overhead railing and swarmed Coach Jim Larranaga and his overachieving team as they loaded their luggage and boarded the buses with box lunches in hand. Security guards had to clear the way for the team to get through the crowd.
Many of those fans will be flying to Houston in the coming days. The 700 student tickets were gone almost immediately when they went on sale. The school’s allotment of 3,000 tickets also sold out quickly. Thousands more Miami fans were buying tickets on their own.
It has been 21 years since a Hurricanes team in any sport was in position to win a national title. The UM men’s basketball team is two games away, and long-suffering Canes fans want to be part of history.
An estimated 30 to 40 former UM basketball players requested tickets, including Eric Brown, Constantin Popa, Tim James, Jack McClinton, Steve Edwards, Darius Rice, Kevin Presto, Alex Fraser, Mario Bland, and Joel Warren.
Most of those players were standouts in the 1980s and 1990s, when the team toiled in relative obscurity in the James L. Knight Center and Miami Arena in downtown Miami. The L.A. Lakers play the Rockets in Houston Sunday night, so there is a chance former Canes Davon Reed and Lonnie Walker, now with the Lakers, will be able to attend the UM-UConn game.
A large group of former UM football players also is expected to be there, including Reggie Wayne, Michael Irvin and Edgerrin James.
“I cried like a baby when UM beat Texas to get into the Final Four,” said Harry Rothwell, longtime Miami booster and manager at allCanes sporting goods store a few blocks from campus. “I am still pinching myself.”
Having UM in the Final Four has been great for business, Rothwell said. He has sold 500 “UM-Final Four” t-shirts in the past three days. There were lines outside the UM student bookstore, where an estimated 1,500 shirts were sold.
“We can’t get the merchandise in the store fast enough,” Rothwell said. “I’m getting mail orders from customers I haven’t seen in five to 10 years. Everyone is on the UM bandwagon.”
Well, not exactly everyone.
According to TicketIQ, a ticket search engine website, ticket prices have been dropping since the start of the NCAA Tournament as basketball bluebloods were eliminated. The Hurricanes also probably contributed to the drop in overall ticket sales because they upset top seed Houston and No. 2 seed Texas, both of which were expected to bring big crowds to NRG Stadium.
According to TicketIQ ticket prices for the Final Four have dropped 28 percent, making it the least expensive Final Four since 2014, with the average list price on the secondary market at $711.
The cheapest ticket on the secondary market is going for approximately $168 for the Semifinals, cheapest since 2011. Last year, the Final Four included North Carolina, Duke, Kansas and Villanova, all teams with rich traditions.
“This is a very unconventional, non-traditional Final Four with San Diego State, FAU and Miami,” UM coach Larranaga said. “I don’t think anyone’s bracket has all three of us. Maybe they had UConn.”
Asked if he thought it was good or bad for college basketball to have no top seeds in the Final Four and to have three first-timers, Larranaga said this Final Four demonstrates the parity in the game and the impact of the transfer portal, which allows teams to get old in a hurry.
“But is it good for the game? I don’t think we’d want this to happen every year because some of the biggest reasons people follow college basketball is they know the big programs,” he said. “I’d imagine that’s what TV would want, the bluebloods, the best programs in history. But now anybody can get here with the best combination of players.”
This is Larranaga’s second trip to the Final Four. He took George Mason there as an 11 seed in 2006. That experience taught him that adjusting to a large dome is key.
“The venue is very different, you’re playing basketball in a football stadium,” Larranaga said. “It’s very, very hard to communicate. It almost feels like you’re playing outdoors, so it will take some time for our players to adjust to it.”
The Hurricanes will practice at the dome on Thursday and Friday. To prepare for the noise level, the team has been working on hand signals.
Wong said the largest place he has played was the 33,000-seat Carrier Dome in Syracuse, so playing in a place more than twice that size will be different. But he is eager for the challenge.
“Only four teams are left and you only have to win two games to win the national championship, so it’s a big honor to be in this point,” said Isaiah Wong, who stayed after practice Wednesday to take extra shots. “We have played underdog this whole year, this is just another game we’re an underdog like we were against Texas and Houston.”
The Huskies are heavy favorites. Many experts are picking UConn. That’s fine with the Hurricanes.
“Don’t pick us,” Larranaga said, smiling. “That’s been our players’ slogan since the tournament began and we really don’t care because other than Drake, we have been the underdog in every game.”