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Texas seeks first Final Four in 20 years; Miami seeks first ever

Something's got to give when Longhorns, Hurricanes meet in Elite 8
Miami Hurricanes forward Norchad Omier drives to basket past Houston Cougars in second half of Sweet 16 of NCAA tournament, March 24, 2023
Posted at 1:13 AM, Mar 26, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-26 01:24:29-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Texas coach Rodney Terry was not more than 20 minutes removed from a resounding win over Xavier in the Sweet 16 when he was asked about the next mammoth task during what is becoming an improbable run toward a home-state Final Four.

How do you slow down Nijel Pack and high-scoring Miami?

"You're not going to let me enjoy this for one night, huh?" Terry replied.

He was joking, of course. Terry and his second-seeded Longhorns — the best seed left in an upset-filled NCAA tournament — have been savoring every moment of March Madness. It began two weeks ago with a run through Kansas to the Big 12 Conference Tournament title on the same floor inside T-Mobile Center, and with a win over the No. 5 seed Hurricanes on Sunday night, it would end with a trip to Houston and Texas' first Final Four appearance in 20 years.

"This has been a very resilient team all year long," said Terry, the longtime assistant who epitomized that resolve by keeping the Longhorns together after coach Chris Beard was suspended and ultimately fired early in the season.

"When you play in the Big 12," Terry continued, "you've been battle-tested. There's not really anything you haven't faced all year long — foul trouble, an injured guy. You just keep playing and keep working."

Texas Longhorns interim head coach Rodney Terry during Sweet 16 of NCAA tournament, March 24, 2023
Texas head coach Rodney Terry yells in the first half of a Sweet 16 game against Xavier in the Midwest Region of the NCAA tournament Friday, March 24, 2023, in Kansas City, Mo.

The latest injury for the Longhorns involves Dylan Disu, the Big 12 tournament MVP, who hurt his left foot in the second-round win over Penn State. Disu had been a revelation during the NCAA tournament's opening weekend, but the 6-foot-9 senior had to watch most of their regional semifinal win over the Musketeers from the bench in a walking boot.

Terry called him "day to day" on Saturday, though it appears unlikely Disu will be available against Miami.

That won't help when it comes to stopping Pack and Co.

The transfer from Kansas State, whose $800,000 deal with LifeWallet made him an early poster child for an era of name, image and likeness compensation, dropped seven 3-pointers and scored 26 points in leading the Hurricanes to an easy win over Houston on Friday night — thus eliminating the last No. 1 seed in the tourney.

Miami coach Jim Larrañaga called Pack's performance "a joke," one that left only his own team laughing, and it came after the Kansas State transfer scored 21 points in the Hurricanes' NCAA tournament opener against Drake and 12 in a second-round win over Indiana.

"I wanted to be part of something special, something great," Pack said. "We're doing something special right now."

Miami Hurricanes guard Nijel Pack raises finger in air in first half of Sweet 16 of NCAA tournament vs. Houston Cougars, March 24, 2023
Miami guard Nijel Pack celebrates after scoring against Houston in the first half of a Sweet 16 game in the Midwest Region of the NCAA tournament Friday, March 24, 2023, in Kansas City, Mo.

Even if the Longhorns and their own spectacular guards, Marcus Carr and Tyrese Hunter, manage to limit Pack's looks in the Midwest Region final, they still have to deal with ACC player of the year Isaiah Wong, ruthless rebounding machine Norchad Omier and a group trying to reach the Final Four for the first time in school history.

"Their guard play is really good," Terry said. "They share the basketball really well. Their interior players played really well against a really physical Houston team. Nothing but respect for Coach Larrañaga and what he has been able to do over the course of his career. His teams just win. We know we have our hands full."

Terry's feeling of admiration is quite mutual.

"When Rodney had to step into his role," Larrañaga said, "he had to command the respect of his players first. And they bought into whatever he said, whatever he did — hook, line and sinker. ... They're an outstanding team. They've played very hard and very well together at both ends of the court. I was extremely impressed with how they've played."

Larrañaga has been to the Final Four once already. If he could take George Mason to the national semifinals, perhaps reaching the same point with what some pundits still carelessly call "a football school" — one that dropped its basketball program for a 14-year stretch in the 1970s and '80s — doesn't seem quite so far-fetched.

Miami Hurricanes head coach Jim Larranaga gestures during first half of Sweet 16 of NCAA tournament, March 24, 2023
Miami head coach Jim Larranaga gestures in the first half of a Sweet 16 game against Houston in the Midwest Region of the NCAA tournament Friday, March 24, 2023, in Kansas City, Mo.

"The culture is changing," the Hurricanes' Anthony Walker said. "Coach brings a winning mentality, and it drips onto us. It's the culture, man. We come out and play hard, Miami basketball. The outcome speaks for itself."

The outcome is all that matters at this point for Texas, too.

The Longhorns have taken the season in 40-minute bites, one game at a time, never gazing too far down the path. It was an approach that helped them deal with an abrupt change in leadership, injuries along the way to Timmy Allen and now Disu, and a brutally difficult Big 12 that also advanced Kansas State to the NCAA tournament's final eight.

The next 40 minutes will decide whether Texas reaches its first Final Four since 2003, when the 54-year-old Terry was just an up-and-coming assistant on the staff of Rick Barnes, and how many of the Longhorns will be remembered.

"I think my one constant message to our guys was, 'Be where your feet are. Stay in the present right now. And we're going to control what we can control,'" Terry said. "All the goals we had for the season are still in front of us."