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Miami can raise bar for program with trip to Elite Eight

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- With just one win, Miami can call itself the greatest in an arena just a few blocks from the center dedicated to Muhammad Ali.

The Hurricanes' hoops history isn’t one of storied accomplishments, though the team has been trending upward since the arrival of coach Jim Larranaga. A win over Villanova on Thursday would vault the Canes into uncharted territory. In the program’s eight NCAA tournament appearances, Miami has never made it to the Elite Eight.

“It would be a huge accomplishment for the program, but especially for the players,” Larranaga said. “This tournament brings lifelong memories. You never forget how you play in the tournament – ever.”

One thing is for sure: Miami will never forget the 2012-13 squad that won the ACC regular season and tournament and reached the Sweet 16 for just the second time in program history. Senior guard Angel Rodriguez credits that team with setting the foundation for where the program wants to be on a consistent basis.

“They were the team who started the winning culture, if you want to put it like that, under Coach L,” Rodriguez said. “What they did is definitely a huge accomplishment.”

So is what Rodriguez and the current group are doing. Miami’s 17 consecutive weeks ranked in the top 25 and 14 weeks ranked in the top 15 both set school records, with the latter eclipsing a mark set in 1959-60. That alone could give this team the nod over the 2012-13 squad to be considered the school’s best ever.

Tonye Jekiri was a freshman on that team. He had a hard time saying who would win a hypothetical matchup.

“It’s really tough. I can’t really tell. This team really has a lot of talent,” Jekiri said. “Angel is a fighter, never quits. Sheldon [McClellan], a great shooter. I think our bench is way better than my freshman year bench. I just think guys on this team are ready to compete hard and fight, but my freshman year team was just an older team with fifth-year guys. I can’t really pick who would win.”

This Miami team is better in adjusted offensive, according to Ken Pomeroy. The team ranked 12th in the nation this year, compared to 20th three seasons ago. But the Canes’ defense was slightly better back then. The 2012-13 squad ranked 29th nationally, versus 32nd this season.

McClellan said this team hasn't spent much time thinking about its place in program history, but it would mean a lot to be the first Miami team to inch one game closer to the Final Four.

“I don’t know, man, it’s kind of up to y’all for those comparisons,” the senior guard said. “We just try to win the game and advance. It’s called survive and advance for a reason. That’s our main focus.”