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Matt Vautour: Miami states its case as a Final Four contender

Is Miami a legitimate Final Four contender?

It’s starting to look that way. The Hurricanes have won nine straight heading into Tuesday night’s game at Boston College and nobody is playing better than they are right now.

At 8-0 in the ACC, first-place Miami (17-3) is two games ahead of second-place Duke, a team the Hurricanes crushed 90-63 on Jan. 23.

Miami’s three losses all came shorthanded. Florida Gulf Coast upset it in the second game of the season when Durand Scott was out of action and losses to Arizona and Indiana State in Hawaii came without big man Reggie Johnson. When the ’Canes have been at full strength, they’re undefeated. Few people thought they were a top-10 team coming into the season, but at No. 8 in the Associated Press Top 25 and No. 11 in the coaches poll, they’re probably underranked.

When Frank Haith left Miami for Missouri before the 2011-12 season, nobody had any idea just how much of a blessing it was. For starters, Miami hired Jim Larrañaga, the well-respected coaching veteran who captured the nation’s attention when he led George Mason to the 2006 Final Four. Most college basketball experts would rank Larrañaga as a better coach than Haith to begin with.

But on top of that, Haith is now embroiled in NCAA allegations related to the Nevin Shapiro scandal that’s affecting Miami’s football and basketball programs. If Haith was still there, the basketball players would be dealing with the distraction of potential NCAA punishments awaiting him. As of now, the players are mostly insulated from the problems and Larrañaga is a leading candidate for national coach of the year.

There’s potential for quite a few more wins before the season is out. Its March 2 rematch at Duke, now No. 4, is the only ranked team left on Miami’s schedule.

MY TOP 10 — 1. Indiana, 2. Florida, 3. Michigan, 4. Miami, 5. Kansas, 6. Gonzaga, 7. Duke, 8. Arizona, 9. Syracuse, 10. Louisville.

For the rest of my Top 25, visit the College Hoop Week Guide at GazetteNET.com/Blogs/UMassSports/.

GAME OF THE WEEK: No. 10 Ohio State at No. 3 Michigan, Tuesday, 9 p.m. ESPN — The Buckeyes are one of two teams to beat the Wolverines this season. Michigan will be looking to avenge that loss as well as Saturday’s loss to Indiana.

ATLANTIC 10 GAME OF THE WEEK: Charlotte at Temple, Wednesday, 7 p.m. — The 49ers haven’t been nearly as good on the road as they have been at home this season. Winning at Temple would be a big step to establishing themselves as a true contender for the league title.

TOUGHEST WEEK — Ohio State. Not only do the Buckeyes travel to Michigan, but they host No. 1 Indiana, Sunday at 1 p.m.

NEW NICKNAME PLEASE: Northwestern — Like many schools and their mascots, Northwestern can credit, or in this case blame, its Wildcat moniker on a sport writer. According to the school’s website: “The tradition of Willie the Wildcat was established in 1924 when Wallace Abbey of the Chicago Tribune wrote, ‘The Northwestern team fought like wildcats yesterday...’ From then on the ‘Wildcats’ was officially adopted as the University’s athletic nickname.”

That was a weak line in the Tribune and weaker nickname as Northwestern is one of nine Wildcats in Division I, and far from the least successful.

The school is the most prominent Division I program in greater Chicago and it should embrace that city’s history. Gangsters would make a really fun nickname and logo given Chicago’s folklore to organized crime, and Bosses could be good as well for its ties to Tammany Hall. Political correctness would probably prohibit either of those from happening.

The Northwestern Untouchables would be a great tribute to the Eliot Ness gang of federal officers that took down Al Capone in Chicago.

Some astronomers believe the Great Chicago Fire started when meteorites from a broken-up comet crashed into a barn full of hay. The Northwestern Comets would make a terrific nickname too.

Anything is better than Wildcats.

ON THE ROAD TO — Northeastern (14-8, 9-1 CAA) making its first NCAA tournament since 1991.

Information from personal interviews, newspaper articles and sports information releases was used in this report.

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Follow UMass coverage on Twitter at twitter.com/GazetteUMass. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.

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