Rick Snider: Biggest stories in basketball world now reside in South Beach

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Miami is supposed to be about South Beach, bikinis and surfboards. Where style meets sand along the sidewalks of late designer Gianni Versace's mansion.

Sports? It has always been a football town thanks to the Miami Dolphins of the 1970s and the Miami Hurricanes of the 1980s that totaled five titles over two decades. Baseball, horse and dog racing and even jai alai have die-hard fans.

But basketball is the new passion of the U.S. gateway city to the tropics. First the Miami Heat grab LeBron James and win the NBA championship last season. Now the University of Miami visits Verizon Center on Thursday for the Sweet 16.

Maybe President Obama will attend courtside. After all, the First Fan picked Miami to reach the Elite Eight in his bracket. The Hurricanes were anointed to win the NCAA tournament by ESPN's Digger Phelps and picked to be a Final Four entrant by ESPN's Joe Lunardi.

"The U" is no longer about some NFL player recalling his college team.

It is an amazing turnaround by a team that plays in a nondescript gym where opposing teams like Maryland outdrew the home team when the Hurricanes entered the ACC in 2004.

The wizard of rebuilding is familiar to Washington-area fans. Former George Mason coach Jim Larranaga turned Miami into ACC champions in just two years. It wasn't longtime conference kingpins Duke or North Carolina that won the regular season or tournament titles this year. Miami took both convincingly.

Certainly, the Hurricanes will be considered Cinderella's rich cousin despite a No. 2 seed. Larranaga's 2006 Patriots won a regional title as a No. 11 seed over No. 1 Connecticut on the same Verizon Center floor. Given the Hurricanes' skimpy postseason resume and Larranaga's past, Miami will be the crowd favorite when playing Marquette and possibly No. 1 seed Indiana if it advances to Saturday.

Who doesn't want Miami playing Indiana in the East Region final? And who doesn't want Miami to win?

Oh, Florida Gulf Coast has become the tournament's darling as a No. 15 seed that shocked Georgetown and San Diego State. The cross-state rival even beat Miami on Nov. 13. Fans whose brackets were busted by the Eagles will root for them to win the South Region crown.

But Miami is Hoops City USA right now. While LeBron seeks a 65-win season and second ring, Larranaga vies to become a legend with two sleepers reaching the Final Four in eight years. Now Larranaga can gain the respect due for a solid career while often working with less than ACC rivals Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski. After all, given their choice, what recruit would pass on wintering in Miami?

Maybe Larranaga will own Verizon once more. And maybe the building's owner, Ted Leonsis, should think about a new coach for his pro team. Wouldn't that be something?

Examiner columnist Rick Snider has covered local sports since 1978. Read more on Twitter @Snide_Remarks or email rsnider@washingtonexaminer.com.

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