It’s a great time to be a basketball fan in the Miami area. If you’re a fan on South Beach, you know coming into the year that the Heat would give you a shot at a title, but LeBron’s team was not just the only basketball excitement—it was the only team in town worth watching in any sport, unless you were taken by the University of Miami’s mediocre 7-5 season in college football. Now, seemingly out of nowhere comes the U’s basketball team. The Hurricanes are flying high, ranked third in the nation, and it’s time to ask the question—could Miami sports nail a big parlay and sweep through the Final Four in April, then take the NBA title again in June?
Let’s start with the Hurricanes, since they’re the lesser known commodity. Here at TheSportsNotebook we talked about the excellent talent level that exists in the program on the morning before the ‘Canes smashed Duke and into the national consciousness. Miami’s got it all—Durand Scott can score from the wing, as can Trey McKinney-Jones. If you watched Miami bury North Carolina on Saturday, I don’t have to tell you how good point guard Shane Larkin is—he’s both a passer and a lights-out shooter from three-point range. And most importantly, Miami is tough in the paint. Reggie Johnson and Kenny Kadji are very tough for most college teams to match up with.
I’ve got no problem with saying that Miami has, for me, emerged as the clear team to beat. If the NCAA Tournament were a best-of-seven, I’d have no hesitation at picking the ‘Canes to win it all, whereas I’d be unsure which contender to slot in at #2. If you take this kind of talent and blanketed with the Duke brand name, no one would question who the best team in the nation was.
But Miami doesn’t have a brand name, and that does have implications beyond just respect. While I’m on their bandwagon, I am concerned that these aren’t players with NCAA Tournament experience. The fact we’ve seen Kentucky win it all with freshman persuades me the ‘Canes can overcome this, but I certainly wouldn’t fault anyone who was skeptical.
The other concern is the ACC—the conference itself might have the brand name, but with North Carolina on a rebuilding year, it’s not a very good league. Ever since Maryland fell from the ranks of national title contenders and into the realm of pretty good bubble teams, the ACC has really not offered much beyond Duke and Carolina, at least for as national contenders. Miami got off to a slow start—a loss to Florida Gulf Coast in November qualifies as slow, and they also lost to Indiana State. That means the ‘Canes current reputation is built upon the league slate. What does it mean if the slate isn’t that good?
We’ll learn a little bit more about Miami this week when they go to Florida State and go to Clemson. Neither team is anything special, but both are good enough to win games at home. We need to see how the Hurricanes handle the road amidst growing national publicity. They also go to Duke on March 2.
Miami is currently a 14-1 shot to win the national title (Michigan and Florida are the favorites at 7-2). I respect the concerns about them—the inexperience and the quality of the ACC—but if I were in Las Vegas tonight, be assured that’s a ticket I’d be snapping up.
Now let’s move to the NBA. You’re quite familiar with LeBron, Wade and Bosh as the Big Three and all three are having vintage seasons. Where the Heat have problems is inside. This isn’t new—the inconsistency from Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony was an issue last year, so the Heat have shown they can play around it. But it’s worse this time around. The playing time for Haslem and Anthony is dropping, and the Heat are increasingly a perimeter-oriented team. Ray Allen, Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers join LeBron and reserve power forward Rashad Lewis in averaging multiple trey attempts per game and hitting 40 percent.
I give head coach Erik Spoelstra credit—rather than try and jam unproductive post players into the lineup, he simply shifted gears entirely and let the perimeter players who produce get more playing time. Better to play your strength in a way that’s less than ideal, than to give in to your weakness. But the reality is, it’s still a weakness, and New York, Oklahoma City and San Antonio all have quality post players who can exploit it. For that matter, let’s throw Brooklyn, a second-round opponent based on the standings today, into that group as well.
Of course having the best player in the game cures a lot of ills, and the Heat are 34-14, 2 ½ games ahead of New York for the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference. They trail San Antonio and Oklahoma City in the loss column by two games for best overall record. You can look at this one of two ways—on the one hand, the Heat have won the East two straight years as a #2 seed, lost the 2011 Finals with homecourt advantage and won the 2012 title without it. Clearly, it’s not some kind of litmus test.
On the other hand, the overall track record of the NBA playoffs tells us how important this advantage is generally. If not for a timely Derrick Rose injury taking out #1 seed Chicago last year, and Oklahoma City unable to make the one or two extra plays it would have required to get one in South Beach and push the series back to OkC for the final two games, maybe the lack of homecourt would have been costly for the Heat.
I take the positive view with regard to the East—I think Miami wins it regardless of what spot on the bracket they come from, although getting homecourt would be icing on the cake. The Finals is different—it’s going to be hotly contested regardless, but I’d probably lean the direction of whoever has the extra home game. For the record, the Heat are still the betting favorite to win it all, with odds of 12-5, while the Spurs and Thunder are 5-1.
However you want to slice it though, Miami sports fans are going to have a lot to cheer over the next five months. After last year’s Finals, Heat president Pat Riley asked the crowd “Can we have a party tonight?” Who knows, this spring and summer, maybe the city will have two.
THE HISTORICAL PRECEDENT
The Final Four-NBA Finals parlay has only happened two other times. The most recent was 1989, when Michigan won the national championship. Head coach Bill Frieder took another job before the NCAA Tournament and was told to take his whistle and clipboard and leave town early. Interim coach Steve Fischer led the Wolverines to the national title with an overtime win over Seton Hall in the final, aided considerably by a touch foul called in the closing seconds (a description confirmed by UM guard Rumeal Robinson, on whom the foul was called and then sank the two free throws that won the crown, 80-79).
On the NBA side was the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons of Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Bill Laimbeer & Co. They swept out the Los Angeles Lakers. Magic Johnson pulled a hamstring in Game 2, and Byron Scott also missed the series, but it should be noted that the Pistons were still the team with the best record. It was likely their year to break through after a couple near-misses, even if the injuries made it possible for the sweep.
The other instance was 1972, with the Lakers and UCLA. It’s surprising that this combo didn’t happen more often. But the Lakers usually had teams that came up just short, and by the time Magic arrived and changed all that, the Wooden era was over at UCLA. Still, 1980 was an almost moment—the Lakers won in Magic’s rookie year, and UCLA led the NCAA final 50-45 over Louisville with five minutes to go before the Cardinals went on a run and won the game 59-54.
There’s only two other geographic instances worth nothing. In 2006 you had another Heat championship, while Florida won the NCAA title. But the Gators are much further north and I would their fan base to Orlando. In 1994, it was Arkansas in college and the Houston Rockets in the NBA. Here, I’d link up Arkansas with Dallas, In both cases, I’m sure there were a good number of fans who rooted for both teams, but it’s not the strict geographic tie that happened in 1972, 1989 and perhaps again in 2013.