Notebook: NCAA men’s basketball tournament teams in Albany tune out talk of seeding, predictions

Basketball player goes for a dunk

Miami’s Wooga Poplar dunks during NCAA men's basketball tournament practice at MVP Arena in Albany on Thursday, March 16, 2023.

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ALBANY — Cinderella stories are integral to the magic of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Few people are as well-versed in them as Miami (Fla.) head coach Jim Larrañaga.

In 2006, Larrañaga led George Mason on one of the most improbable March Madness runs in history, leading the Patriots from an at-large bid out of the CAA to a stunning berth in the Final Four as a No. 11 seed.

So, when Larrañaga gets his teams ready for tournament play, seeding never factors into the conversation.

“We don’t care where we’re seeded,” Larrañaga said Thursday at MVP as his fifth-seeded Hurricanes prepared for Friday’s 7:25 p.m. Midwest Region first-round game against No. 12 Drake. “We don’t care where our opponent is seeded. What we care about is not how we play or where we play, but it’s how we play.”

It’s a lesson Larrañaga learned in 25 years as a mid-major coach at Bowling Green and George Mason, and has continued in the 12 years since taking over at Miami.

For the 73-year-old head coach, just getting to the Big Dance is an accomplishment in itself.

“My appreciation really began as a mid-major coach, realizing how difficult it is to get to the NCAA tournament,” he said. “At Bowling Green, we couldn’t do it. At George Mason, no one really gave us a chance. They told me, ‘You’re never going to win the league. You’re like the worst team.’ I was like, ‘That’s not right.’

“Every time we’ve gotten there [at Miami] in 2013 and beyond has been very special. I know it’s special for each member of the team, because they might only go through it one time.”

That fragility makes it vital for players and coaches to tune out the noise at a time of year where seemingly everyone — from fans, to media figures, to current and former presidents — fills out a bracket.

Indiana players Race Thompson and Miller Kopp both shrugged off a mention that ESPN analyst Jay Bilas had predicted the Hoosiers — the No. 4 seed in the Midwest — would lose their first-round game Friday night against No. 13 Kent State.

“It doesn’t really matter. We’ve still got to go out there and play the game,” Thompson said. “People make brackets for fun, so it’s all fun. But, we’re going out there to win the game. That’s the goal at the end of the day. It doesn’t matter whether people pick us or not. We think we can win any game.”

“At the end of the day,” Kopp said, “it doesn’t matter. All that goes out the window when the ball goes up to start the game.”

And it doesn’t matter how prominent the predictor is.

Iona head coach and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame member Rick Pitino said he appreciated that former President Barack Obama picked the 13th-seeded Gaels to reach the Sweet 16 in the West Region — “I’ve always said that President Obama was one of the most intelligent presidents we’ve ever had,” Pitino said, “and this lends credence to that.” — but acknowledged how unpredictable the tournament can be.

Even Pitino, when asked who he thought would come away with the national championship in Houston a couple weeks from now, was unsure.

“This is the only year,” Pitino said, “out of almost 40 years of being in this business, that I couldn’t tell you who wins.”


This weekend’s games at MVP Arena are a make-up from 2020, when Albany was set to host first- and second-round contests, only for the tournament to be canceled when COVID-19 restrictions shut down the sports world.

For Virginia Commonwealth, this tournament is also something of a make-good. 

The Rams last made the tournament in 2021, when the event was held inside of a COVID “bubble” in and around Indianapolis. But they never got to play, with VCU holding the distinction as the only program to be knocked out of the tournament by positive COVID tests within the program.

VCU head coach Mike Rhoades recalled the turmoil.

“We had a great practice, and then the shootaround … the testing came back, and they put us on hold to hang out in our hotel room,” Rhoades said. “I think we were on the 16th floor of the JW Marriott. They just said there was a positive test. We went to that player, kept him in the room. 

“They put us in a hold. We all went down and retested. … Then, a couple other things came back positives, and then it was — I guess there was some secret meetings. We were all stuck up on the 16th floor, and we just waited. My [athletic director] Ed McLaughlin, he called me and said they’re going to shut us down.”

Rhoades said he and the program have “moved on from it” and kept the incident in perspective.

“We only lost the basketball game,” he said. “Unfortunately, we’re the only team ever to get kicked out of the NCAA tournament for something that was out of our control. But, like I told our guys, we just missed an opportunity to play a basketball game. That’s it. A lot of people lost a lot of other things and were a lot worse off than us.”

Still, VCU guard Ace Baldwin Jr. said, the 12th-seeded Rams are eager to make up for lost time, starting with Friday’s 2 p.m. first-round game against West Region No. 5 seed Saint Mary’s.

“Now that we’re back,” Baldwin said, “we’ve got to make a run and let everybody know who we are.”


Indiana is one of college basketball’s blueblood programs, with five NCAA championships and eight total Final Four appearances. But the Hoosiers haven’t won a national title since 1987, haven’t reached the Final Four since 2002 and haven’t advanced out of the tournament’s first weekend since 2016.

That doesn’t stop the Hoosiers from setting high expectations for themselves.

“Yes, expectations are high,” Indiana head coach Mike Woodson said. “I knew that coming in. Hell, I played here. They should be high, and it’s OK.”

Woodson played at Indiana from 1976-80, went on to play for a decade in the NBA and spent 25 years as a coach in the professional ranks — including head-coaching stints with the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks — before returning to his alma mater last season.

“I’m not a coach that’s ever run from a challenge,” Woodson said. “Yeah, there are always naysayers around you, but if I listen to that, man, I can’t do my job. Indiana is a big-time program. It’s been that way for years. I’m just trying to get them back on top.”

Senior forward Trayce Jackson-Davis, a consensus first-team All-American, has seen his share of lows during his time at Indiana.

This tournament is a chance for Jackson-Davis to end his tenure as a Hoosier on a high.

“I do take great pride in what I’ve accomplished here and what I’ve been able to do,” Jackson-Davis said, “and just the growth of this program in the last four years from where I started as a freshman to where I am now. I think I can speak for the two [Thompson and Kopp] next to me as well. It’s been a long time coming, and a long time to get to this moment.”

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