College Basketball’s X-Factors: 14 storylines that will determine champions

Jayson Tatum (photo courtesy Duke Athletics
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The season will finally be here on Friday, meaning that the time for previewing the year is just about over. 

But before we get there, let’s take a closer look at 14 things that could end up deciding league titles, who gets to the Final Four and, eventually, who wins the national title.

Call them story lines, call them positional battles, call them what you like. Here are the most important x-factors as we enter the 2016-17 college basketball season: 

So … is Duke ever going to be healthy or nah?: The major issue that Duke is dealing with right now is the health of Harry Giles III’s knees. He had yet to be fully cleared from a torn ACL he suffered in the first game of his senior season in high school when, in September, he underwent a procedure on his other knee, the one that he tore up after his freshman year in high school. The question of whether or not Giles plays – and just how effective he will be if he does – has been swirling around the Duke program since news of his second ACL tear came out a year ago.

But he’s not the only Blue Devil currently battling an injury. Jayson Tatum sprained a bone in his foot and is expected back for Friday’s season-opener. Marques Bolden suffered what the program is calling a “lower leg injury” this week and is expected to miss the first two games of the season. And Grayson Allen is banged up, having been pulled from Duke’s exhibition against Virginia State after hurting his shoulder.

The latter three listed here are not dealing with serious injuries and should, in theory, be able to get healthy before the first Christmas Carol of the year is sung. But Giles is the ultimate difference maker for this team – think Karl-Anthony Towns and Kentucky in 2015 – and his absence for this group is massive.

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Speaking of health, Dillon Brooks and his balky foot: Oregon was a No. 1 seed last season, returns plenty of talent from a team that won a dual-conference title and will enter this year as the favorite to win the Pac-12 once again. But they are doing so without their all-american Dillon Brooks, who is battling a foot injury that kept him out during Oregon’s trip to Spain over the summer. Brooks is the most talented player on this team and the one guy that plays the position that would allow Oregon lineup versatility. Just how long is he going to be out for and, when he returns, just how effective is he going to be?

Is Malik Monk a streaky shooter, a dumb shooter or a good shooter finally on a real team?: Monk shot around 32 percent from three as a high schooler, per Draft Express, and developed a reputation for being as streaky as anyone at any level. He might go for 40 and hit nine threes one game and follow that up with a 2-for-18 performance the next. That kind of inconsistency won’t fly at Kentucky, but neither will Monk’s shot selection, which had much more to do with his shooting percentages than anything else. He played on a high school team that was almost as bad as Anthony Davis’. He played on an AAU team where his point guards liked to shoot just as much as he did. We’ve never seen him on a team like Kentucky, where he isn’t far and away the most talented player.

So how will this play out? Will Monk embrace being a part of an offense, being a guy that is asked to execute sets and play within the confines of a system? Or will he buck at being reined in and spend the season trying to prove that he is Russell Westbrook? No one questions the talent, the scoring ability, the athleticism. They do, however, question whether he can be a consistent jump-shooter, and if he is, than the biggest concern about these Wildcats – their ability to make perimeter shots – is, in part, answered.

Just how effective will Villanova’s small-ball lineups be?: Because they are going to have to be very, very good if the Wildcats are going to have a real shot at repeating as national champs. That’s what happens when the only true low-post threat on last year’s team, Daniel Ochefu, graduates while the only true low-post threat on this year’s team, Omari Spellman, has been ruled ineligible for this year. Darryl Reynolds was effective in his minutes last season, but Darryl Reynolds is not the answer for a team looking to win another ring. That leaves Villanova in a position where they’ll be using, essentially, five guards sets, the Villanova ‘Death Lineup’, if you will. The physicality and length of guys like Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, Mikal Bridges and Eric Paschall makes this option not only possible, but likely to succeed, at least to some degree.

CONTENDER SERIES: Duke | Oregon | Kentucky | Kansas | Villanova

LOUISVILLE, KY - MARCH 26:  Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats dunks the ball in the first half against the Kansas Jayhawks during the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament South Regional at KFC YUM! Center on March 26, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Josh Hart, Villanova Wildcats (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

How will Gonzaga’s veterans adjust to losing minutes?: The four most important players on Gonzaga’s roster this season are taking someone else’s minutes. Nigel Williams-Goss and Johnathan Williams III were transfers that sat out last season. Jordan Mathews is a grad transfer from Cal. Prezemek Karnowski was supposed to graduate this summer and received a waiver to play one more year due to injury issues. What that means is that the Bulldogs are going to have a lot of pieces on their roster that were either expecting to play – or how gotten used to playing – major minutes. I worry about how that will affect team chemistry considering that the Zags are ranked eighth in our preseason poll.

Is there anyone on Louisville that can replace Chinanu Onuaku’s interior presence?: Because that is what the Cardinals are going to miss from the pieces they lost this offseason. I’m not worried about Rick Pitino’s club finding a way to replace Damion Lee’s scoring or Trey Lewis’ minutes at the lead guard spot. Between the jump I expect Donovan Mitchell, Deng Adel and Ray Spalding to make along with the addition of V.J. King, the Cards have more than enough talent and athleticism on the perimeter to play the way that Pitino wants to play. But do they have someone to replace Onuaku, who was one of the nation’s most effective shot-blockers and rebounders?

Michigan State’s point guard play: The Spartans have had some brutal injury luck during the fall, as both Ben Carter and Gavin Schilling suffered knee injuries that could very likely keep Michigan State from having any sort of front court depth this season. That means that the play of freshman Nick Ward is going to be critical to their season, as is Miles Bridges’ ability to be a small-ball four that exceeds the substantial hype he is entering the season with. This is as young of a team as Izzo has ever coached at Michigan State, which is why I think it will be the point guard play of Tum Tum Nairn and Cassius Winston that determines just how far this team goes. A young roster needs an alpha-dog with the ball in his hands, someone that can direct traffic on the floor, get players the ball in a spot where they can be effective and that can take over when needed. Nairn, through two seasons, hasn’t yet proven he can be that guy, and Winston is a freshman himself.

Speaking of point guards … hello, Syracuse: Do the Orange have a point guard on their roster? Is Franklin Howard the next Michael Gbinije? Can John Gillon adjust to the rigors of the ACC game? Because the rest of this Orange roster looks intimidating. It may be the longest team that Boeheim has ever had at his disposal. Tyus Battle has a chance to be a really good player for the Orange, while Tyler Lydon is on the verge of becoming a lottery pick. Throw in the addition of Andrew White – whose ability to assimilate into a team is an x-factor in its own right – and there are pieces here. But there aren’t a ton of guys that can take a game over or create their own shot. Which is why the point guard play is so important: Who is going to be the player that makes offense easier for everyone else?

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HOUSTON, TEXAS - APRIL 02:  Tyler Lydon #20 of the Syracuse Orange attempts to dunk the ball against Isaiah Hicks #4 of the North Carolina Tar Heels in the first half during the NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal at NRG Stadium on April 2, 2016 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Tyler Lydon, Syracuse Orange (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

And hello, Indiana: The Hoosiers have a pair of potential lottery picks on their roster in Thomas Bryant and O.G. Anunoby, so I understand why they’re showing up in the top 15 of national polls. I have them there myself. But I think that we are all undervaluing just how much Yogi Ferrell meant to this team last season, and just how much his absence is going to cost them. Can Robert Johnson and Josh Newkirk adequately fill in that role? And if they can’t, who on this Indiana team do you trust to have the ball in their hands on a critical possession when the Hoosiers have to have a bucket?

And are any of these point guards ‘Point Gods’?: These five point guards have the ability to end up somewhere on an all-america team. Do they have the talent around them to win enough games to be considered?

  1. Dennis Smith Jr., N.C. State: Now healthy after recovering from a torn ACL, the uber-explosive Smith has an outside shot at being the No. 1 overall pick while the talent on the Wolfpack gives them a ceiling of being a top 15 team.
  2. Melo Trimble, Maryland: Trimble had a rough year in 2015-16, but with some roster turnover this season, expect the veteran point guard to be on a mission this season.
  3. Markelle Fultz, Washington: Fultz, like Smith, has a shot at being the No. 1 overall pick. Unlike Smith, however, Washington doesn’t have the same kind of talent around him.
  4. Monte’ Morris, Iowa State: Morris is a name that college basketball junkies have been familiar with for some time. It will be his show this season as Georges Niang (finally) graduated after what felt like a ten-year career.
  5. Jalen Adams, UConn: Adams isn’t as well-known as the other four names here, but he’s a sophomore point guard that was a top 25 prospect coming out of high school who should thrive in a Kevin Ollie system geared towards players of his ilk.

Will Allonzo Trier be eligible?: It’s mind-blowing just how much talent Arizona has lost this offseason that they expected to suit up from day one. Justin Simon transferred. Chance Comanche has been suspended for an academic issue. Terrence Ferguson is playing in Australia. Ray Smith tore his ACL. Now imagine you add Trier, who is dealing with an eligibility issue right now, to that list. He would Arizona’s leading returning scorer and the only non-freshman on the roster that might scare opposing game-planners. Without him, Arizona has seven scholarship players remaining and a starting five that may not be better than the five players they lost.

Can Ike Anigbogu anchor UCLA’s defense?: All the banter about the Bruins this summer centered around Bryce Alford, Lonzo Ball and whether or not head coach Steve Alford would be able to find a way to get all of the UCLA talent to play together. And while that is a definite concern, UCLA is only going to go so far this season if they can’t find a way to get tougher on the defensive end of the floor. They finished last season 119th in defensive efficiency, according to Only Washington State was worse in the Pac-12. They couldn’t force turnovers, they couldn’t get defensive rebounds and they couldn’t defend the rim. Anigbogu, a five-star freshman big man, is the guy that has the ability to solve some of those issues, but he’s dealing with a tear in the meniscus in his right knee.

Is there a go-to low-post presence on North Carolina’s roster?: North Carolina’s best teams under Roy Williams all have two thing in common: NBA-caliber point guard play and a first round draft pick playing in the post. Think about it: Ray Felton and Sean May; Ty Lawson and Tyler Hansbrough; Kendall Marshall and Tyler Zeller; Marcus Paige/Joel Berry II and Brice Johnson. Berry is back for his junior season, but who will he pair with on the block? Is Kennedy Meeks (finally?) ready to take that next step forward? Will Isaiah Hicks find a way to transfer his effectiveness in practice into consistent positive contributions in games?

Which Marcus Foster shows up at Creighton?: It’s been two years so I’ll forgive you if you’ve forgotten, but Marcus Foster was so good during his freshman season at Kansas State. He averaged 15.5 points and led the Wildcats to the NCAA tournament despite entering the Big 12 program without being considered a top 100 recruit. Then, as a sophomore, he found himself out of shape, unmotivated and, eventually, in the doghouse. So he left, sitting out last season after transferring to Creighton. Will the motivated Marcus Foster show up this winter, or is that guy officially gone forever?

Malik Monk (Kentucky Athletics)
Malik Monk (Kentucky Athletics)

Unbeaten Gamecocks, Iowa’s Clark star in women’s Final Four

women's final four
Jeff Blake/USA TODAY Sports

SEATTLE ⁠— An undefeated South Carolina team led by star Aliyah Boston and guided by vaunted Dawn Staley, an Iowa squad that features high-scoring Caitlin Clark and the return of LSU and flashy coach Kim Mulkey headline the women’s Final Four this weekend.

Virginia Tech is the newcomer to the group as the Hokies are making their first appearance in the national semifinals. Hokies coach Kenny Brooks became the third Black male coach to take a team to the Final Four in women’s basketball history.

All of the women’s basketball world will descend on Dallas this week as the Division I, II and III championships will be held there. It’s only the second time that all three divisions will have their title games in the same place.

Staley and the Gamecocks are looking to become the 10th team to go through a season unbeaten and the first to repeat as champions since UConn won four in a row from 2013-16. South Carolina advanced to its third consecutive national semifinals and fifth since 2015 thanks to another superb effort by Boston, the reigning AP Player of the Year. The three-time All-American had 22 points and 10 rebounds in a win over Maryland on Monday night.

Next up for the Gamecocks is Iowa and the sensational Clark. She helped the Hawkeyes reach their first Final Four in 30 years with a game for the ages in the regional semifinals on Sunday night. The junior guard had the first 40-point triple-double in NCAA history in the win over Louisville.

The Gamecocks have the experience edge having reached the Final Four so often with this group. No one on Iowa’s roster was alive the last time the team advanced to the game’s biggest stage. C. Vivian Stringer was the coach of that team in 1993 that reached the Final Four before losing to Ohio State in overtime.

“It is like a storybook, but it’s kind of been like that for us all year long,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “I mean, we have had — honestly, we keep talking about destiny and how it’s supposed to happen and it is happening. But I’m so happy for Caitlin. I can remember sitting in her living room and her saying, I want to go to a Final Four. And I’m saying, We can do it together. And she believed me. And so I’m very thankful for that.”

The other game will pit LSU against Virginia Tech. The Tigers are making their first trip to the national semifinals since 2008 when Sylvia Fowles dominated the paint. Now LSU is led by another stellar post player in Angel Reese.

She broke Fowles’ record for double-doubles in a season earlier this year and was key in the Tigers’ win over Miami in the Elite Eight.

Reese, who transferred in this season from Maryland, has made Mulkey’s second season at the school a special one. She came to LSU with a resume headlined by three NCAA titles from her time at Baylor along with some flamboyant sideline looks such as her silver-shimmering jacket with white pants that she wore in the Elite Eight game Sunday.

“What really makes me smile is not cutting that net down,” Mulkey said. “It’s looking around out there at all those LSU people, looking at that team I get to coach experience it for the first time.”

LSU’s opponent is also making its first appearance at the Final Four. The Hokies have had the best season in school history, winning the ACC crown as well under Brooks. He joined former Syracuse Quentin Hillsman and Cheyney State’s Winthrop “Windy” McGriff.

The significance has not been lost on Brooks, who hopes he can inspire other Black male coaches to get more opportunities.

The Hokies run to the national semifinals has been led by star post Elizabeth Kitley and sharpshooter Georgia Amoore. The pair combined for 49 points in the win over Ohio State in the Elite Eight.

Tar Heels’ Love plans to enter name in transfer portal

caleb love transfer portal
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North Carolina guard Caleb Love says he will enter his name into the transfer portal after three seasons with the Tar Heels.

The 6-foot-4 Love announced his decision with a social media post Monday. He had big moments during an unexpected run to last year’s national championship game though he also wrestled with inconsistency for most of his college career.

At his best, Love has game-changing scoring potential and is fearless in taking a big shot. That included scoring 28 points with a huge late 3-pointer to help the Tar Heels beat Duke in the Final Four for the first NCAA Tournament meeting between the rivals and the final game for Blue Devils Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski.

This season he led the team by averaging 16.7 points. but his shooting percentages all dipped after showing gains in 2022. He never shot 40% from the field for a season and twice failed to shoot 30% on 3s.

UNC returns Armando Bacot, the program’s career leading rebounder and an Associated Press third-team All-American, and guard R.J. Davis at the core of an expected roster revamp. That comes after the Tar Heels became the first team to go from No. 1 in the AP preseason poll to missing the NCAA Tournament since it expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

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Texas reportedly reaches deal with Terry as full-time coach

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AUSTIN, Texas ⁠— Texas has reached an agreement with Rodney Terry to be the Longhorns’ full-time head basketball coach, taking the interim tag off his title after he led the program to the Elite Eight following the midseason firing of Chris Beard, a person with knowledge of the deal told The Associated Press.

Texas was knocked out of the NCAA Tournament by Miami on Sunday, ending its longest postseason run since 2008. Terry and Texas officials reached the agreement Monday, according to a person with knowledge of the deal who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Financial terms of the deal were not immediately available.

Terry took over the Longhorns as acting head coach when Beard was first suspended on Dec. 12 after a felony domestic violence arrest. Terry was giving the title of interim head coach when Beard was fired Jan. 5.

Texas won the Big 12 Tournament championship and questions about Terry’s future with the program were amplified as the Longhorns kept winning in the postseason. Texas fans wondered what more he needed to prove and Longhorns players publicly advocated for him to get the job.

“It was all about this team. I’ve enjoyed every single day of this journey with this group,” Terry said in Sunday’s postgame news conference as his voice cracked and he held back tears. “It was never about me. It was always about these guys. I love these guys.”

Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte had praised Terry’s job handling the team in crisis and gave him a raise, though only through April. He’d also noted Terry inherited a veteran, senior-heavy roster and strong staff of assistants built by Beard.

That lineup could have disintegrated into chaos after Beard’s arrest. Instead, Terry marched the program to a second-place regular season finish in the Big 12 and a No. 2-seed in the NCAA Tournament.

The Longhorns went 22-8 under Terry, and their march to the Elite Eight was the program’s first beyond the NCAA Tournament’s first weekend in 15 years.

Terry is the second Black head coach in program history, joining Shaka Smart, who coached Texas from 2015-2021.

Terry, 54, had a previous stint as an assistant at Texas under Rick Barnes from 2002-2011. He also was head coach at Fresno State and UTEP. He left UTEP after three seasons to join Beard’s staff in 2022. He is 185-164 as a head coach.

Former Texas player T.J. Ford, who led the Longhorns to 2003 Final Four and was that season’s Naismith national player of the year, praised the move to keep Terry.

“I’m very excited that the right decision was made to continue this great culture,” Ford tweeted.

The dormant Texas program had all the signs of renewal under Beard, as he mined the transfer portal to build a roster to compete in the rugged Big 12. He had done the same at Texas Tech, where he led the Red Raiders to the 2019 national championship game.

Beard was arrested after his fiancée called 911 and told police he choked, bit and hit her during a confrontation at his home. She later recanted that she was choked, but Texas still fired Beard as university lawyers called him “unfit” to lead the program.

The Travis County district attorney eventually dismissed the felony charge, saying they could not prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, and because of her wishes not to prosecute.

Beard has since been hired at Mississippi.

Caitlin Clark leads Iowa to first Final Four since 1993

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SEATTLE – Caitlin Clark put on quite a show, having one of the greatest performances in NCAA Tournament history to help Iowa end a 30-year Final Four drought.

She had 41 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds to lead the No. 2 seed Hawkeyes to a 97-83 win over fifth-seeded Louisville on Sunday night and send the team to its first women’s Final Four in since 1993.

“I dreamed of this moment as a little girl, to take a team to the Final Four and be in these moments and have confetti fall down on me,” said Clark, who is a Iowa native.

The unanimous first-team All-American was as dominant as she’s been all season in getting the Hawkeyes to Dallas for the women’s NCAA Tournament national semifinals on Friday night. The Seattle 4 Region champion will face the winner of the Greenville 1 region that has South Carolina playing Maryland on Monday night.

“I thought our team played really well. That’s what it’s all about. I was going to give it every single thing I had,” said Clark, who was the region’s most outstanding player. “When I came here I said I wanted to take this program to the Final Four, and all you’ve got to do is dream. And all you’ve got to do is believe and work your butt off to get there. That’s what I did, and that’s what our girls did and that’s what our coaches did and we’re going to Dallas, baby.”

Iowa (30-6) hadn’t been to the Final Four since Hall of Fame coach C. Vivian Stringer led the team to its lone appearance in 1993. Before Sunday, the team had only been to one other Elite Eight – in 2019 – since the Final Four team.

Clark had the 11th triple-double of her career and the 19th in NCAA Tournament history. She had the first 30- and 40-point triple-double in March Madness history.

“It’s like a storybook, been like that all year long,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “We keep talking about destiny and how it’s supposed to happen. … She’s spectacular. I don’t know how else to describe what she does on the basketball court. A 40-point triple-double against Louisville to go to the Final Four. Are you kidding me? That’s mind-boggling.”

Trailing by five at the half, Louisville cut its deficit to 48-47 before Clark and the Hawkeyes scored the next 11 points as part of a 17-6 run to blow the game open. That brought most of the pro-Iowa crowd of nearly 12,000 fans to their feet.

Louisville was down 22 with just under 6 minutes left before going on a 13-1 run to get within 86-76 with 2:10 left. The Cardinals could get no closer.

Clark left the game with 22.7 seconds left to a loud ovation from the crowd as she hugged her coach. After the game, Clark paraded around the court holding the regional trophy high above her head, delighting the thousands of fans who stuck around to celebrate their Hawkeyes.

Hailey Van Lith scored 27 points and Olivia Cochran had 20 points and 14 rebounds to lead Louisville (26-12).

Clark hit eight of the Hawkeyes’ season-high 16 3-pointers, including a few from just past the March Madness logo. It was a school record for the Hawkeyes in the NCAA Tournament, blowing past the previous mark of 13 against Gonzaga in 2011.

Louisville scored the first eight points of the game, forcing Iowa to call timeout. Then Clark got going. The 6-foot junior scored the first seven points for the Hawkeyes and finished the opening quarter with 15 points. When she wasn’t scoring, she found open teammates with precision passes.

She also had four assists in the first 10 minutes, accounting for every one of Iowa’s points as the Hawkeyes led 25-21.

Clark continued her mastery in the second quarter, hitting shots from all over the court, including a few of her famous long-distance 3s from near the logo.

Louisville was able to stay in the game, thanks to Van Lith. After scoring the first six points of the game, she went quiet before getting going late in the second quarter. She had 11 points in the second quarter as the Cardinals found themselves down 48-43 at the break.

Clark had 22 points and eight assists in the opening 20 minutes enroute to the fourth-highest scoring total all-time in a NCAA regional.

“She played great, she made some big shots,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said of Clark. “She passed the ball well. we turned her over at times.”


Clark has 984 points this season and is looking to join former Hawkeye Megan Gustafson with 1,000 points in a single year. Four other players have done it, including Villanova’s Maddy Siegrist, who accomplished the feat this season. Kelsey Plum, Jackie Stiles and Odyssey Sims were the others to do it.


Van Lith once again played well in her home state. The small-town standout from 130 miles away from Seattle grew into being one of the best prep players in the country, the all-time state high school leader in scoring and now a star for the Cardinals.

Hundreds of fans from her hometown of Cashmere, which has a population of 3,200, took in the game, cheering the Louisville star on.


It was a bittersweet day for Iowa assistant coach Jan Jensen. Her dad Dale died in the morning after battling pancreatic cancer for a year. He was 86.

“He didn’t sound so good the last couple days and I was kind of fretting, ‘When am I going to go if we go to Dallas?’” she said. “I just feel like he knew. He was never a high maintenance guy, he was never a guy who made it complicated with me in anything. So I think, he told my people at home, I’m not ready to go until Jan’s team is done.”

Miller, Wong rally Miami past Texas 88-81 for 1st Final Four

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — On the eve of Miami playing for a place in its first Final Four, the quiet conversation floating through the team hotel did not revolve around all that the Hurricanes had accomplished this season. Instead, they talked about what had happened to bring last season to a close.

The sting of an Elite Eight defeat was fresh to those who were there. And they made everyone else feel it, too.

“That loss sat with me for a really long time,” the Hurricanes’ Jordan Miller said. “It doesn’t go away, and the fact that we had the opportunity to come back and make amends, make it right, that’s what was pushing me.”

Miller responded with a perfect performance against second-seeded Texas in the Midwest Region final Sunday. Along with Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year Isaiah Wong and March dynamo Nijel Pack, Miller rallied the Hurricanes from a 13-point second-half deficit for an 88-81 victory that clinched that long-awaited trip to the national semifinals.

“How hard we fought to come back in this game, especially on a stage like this, it’s an amazing feeling,” said Pack, one of Miami’s newcomers. “I know how much these guys wanted to win this game, especially being here last year and losing the Elite Eight, and now being able to take it to the Final Four is something special.”

Miller finished with 27 points, going 7 of 7 from the field and 13 of 13 from the foul line, while Wong scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half against the Longhorns, who had been the top remaining seed in a topsy-turvy NCAA Tournament.

Now, the No. 5 seed Hurricanes (29-7) have a date with No. 4 seed UConn on Saturday night in Houston. Two more Final Four newbies, fifth-seeded San Diego State and No. 9 seed Florida Atlantic, will play in the other national semifinal.

It’s the first time since seeding began in 1979 that no team seeded better than No. 4 made the Final Four, so perhaps it is fitting that Miami coach Jim Larrañaga is involved. He took George Mason there as an 11 seed 17 years ago to the day.

Miami was a 10 seed last year when it lost 76-50 to eventual national champion Kansas in a regional final.

“No one wanted to go home,” said Miller, coincidentally a George Mason transfer, who joined Duke’s Christian Laettner as the only players since 1960 to go 20 for 20 combined from the field and foul line in an NCAA tourney game. “We came together. We stuck together. We showed really good perseverance and the will – the will to just want to get there.”

After Miami climbed back from a 64-51 deficit with 13:22 to play, the game was tied at 79-all when Norchad Omier was fouled by the Longhorns’ Brock Cunningham while going for a loose ball. He made both of the foul shots to give the Hurricanes the lead, then stole the ball from Texas star Marcus Carr at the other end, and Wong made to more free throws with 34 seconds remaining to keep them ahead for good.

Miller kept drilling foul shots down the stretch to ice the Midwest Region title for the Hurricanes.

Wooga Poplar scored 16 points, and Pack followed up his virtuoso performance against top-seeded Houston with 15, as the same school that once dropped hoops entirely in the 1970s advanced to the game’s biggest stage.

“You just love when your players accomplish a goal they set out before the season,” Larrañaga said.

Carr led the Longhorns (29-9) with 17 points, though he was bothered by a hamstring injury late in the game. Timmy Allen added 16 and Sir’Jabari Rice had 15 in the finale of a season that began with the firing of Chris Beard over domestic violence charges that were later dropped and ended with interim coach Rodney Terry consoling a heartbroken team.

“These guys more than any group I’ve worked with in 32 years of coaching have really embodied, in terms of staying the course, being a team,” Terry said, choking up so hard on the postgame dais that he could barely speak. “They were so unselfish as a team, and they gave us everything they had. They really did.”

The Longhorns revealed about 90 minutes before tipoff that Dylan Disu, the Big 12 tourney MVP and early star of the NCAA Tournament, would miss the game with a foot injury. He hurt it in the second round against Penn State and only played about 90 seconds in the Sweet 16 against Xavier before watching the rest of that game in a walking boot.

Without their 6-foot-9 star, the Longhorns’ deep group of dangerous guards resorted to potshots from the perimeter against Miami’s porous defense. Rice hit two 3s early, Carr two of his own, and the Longhorns stormed to a 45-37 halftime lead.

On the other end, Texas tried to keep Pack and Wong from producing a sequel to their 3-point barrage against Houston.

Pack, who dropped seven 3s in the regional semifinal, didn’t even attempt one until there were 7 1/2 minutes left in the first half, and his best shot – a looping rainbow as he fell out of bounds – didn’t even count because it went over the backboard.

Wong took as many shots and scored as many points (two) as he had turnovers in the game’s first 20 minutes.

The Longhorns’ advantage stretched to 13 in the second half, and tension built on the Miami bench. At one point, Harlond Beverly and Larrañaga got into a verbal spat and the 73-year-old coach yanked the backup guard from the game.

Fortunately for the ’Canes, Pack and Wong were poised, Poplar and Miller seemingly possessed.

Still trailing 72-64 with about eight minutes to play, Pack and Wong joined Miller and Omier in turbocharging a 13-3 run to give the Hurricanes a 77-75 lead, their first since the opening minutes. When Rice answered at the other end for Texas, Miller calmly made two go-ahead free throws to begin his late-game parade to the line.

Carr made a nifty turnaround jumper to tie the game again for Texas, but the Miami momentum never slowed. Omier made two free throws with a minute left, swiped the ball from Carr at the other end, and Miller and Co. finished it off.

“We just all bought into staying together, keeping that hope alive,” Miller said, “and the way we just willed this one through, I think everybody played really well, and I think it really shows the poise of this squad.”