It’s massive, but UM and FAU players not fazed by playing in 72,000-seat NRG Stadium

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As Miami and FAU practiced this week in the 72,000-capacity NRG Stadium, home to the NFL’s Houston Texans, they began to get a feel for college basketball’s biggest stage.

“It’s huge. It’s actually huge,” FAU 7-1 center Vladislav Goldin said. “And the way you look around and you see how many seats there are, how many potential people are going to be there and you go, ‘Wow, I’m going to be here? Wow.’ ”

The stadium is much different from the Watsco Center in Coral Gables and FAU Arena, which seat nearly 11,000 people combined. When the Final Four finally tips off on Saturday evening, and 70,000 fans cheer their hearts out while countless cameras capture all the action, the environment will be nothing like either team has ever experienced.

“It’s like you’re playing outdoors,” Miami coach Jim Larrañaga said of NRG Stadium. “ … I whistle very loud. You’re not even going to be able to hear that because it’s such a large venue and the ceiling is so high.”

But both teams have stepped up to the challenge in the NCAA Tournament so far, even as the stakes have risen with each new round. Miami transfer forward Norchad Omier went from the Sun Belt Conference to the ACC to one of the biggest sporting events in the world in just one year.

Yet, he’s just enjoying the ride.

“I don’t feel pressure personally because I’m with my teammates I have been [with] all year. I feel good and excited we’re here right now,” he said.

FAU coach Dusty May knows his players will be ready as well.

“I still don’t think our guys are going to be fazed by the 70-plus-thousand [and] the lights, the attention, because they love ball,” he said. “They love to compete. And they have a lot of faith in their teammates. I think it’s what’s gotten us to this point.”

Norchad Omier: future football star?

With a 6-7, 240-pound frame, Omier would certainly excel on the gridiron. The third-year sophomore has already switched sports before, playing baseball in Nicaragua as a kid.

Larrañaga was asked if football coach Mario Cristobal has shown any interest.

“I hadn’t thought about that, but I better start,” he chuckled.

The Canes already had a former hoops player turn football star in recent memory — tight end Jimmy Graham, who went on to have a Hall of Fame career in the NFL. Graham played four seasons for Miami basketball, before snagging five touchdowns and 17 receptions as a graduate student in 2009.

However, Larrañaga does not see Omier following in his footsteps.

“I don’t want him even thinking about playing football. I don’t think he ever will because he’s a dynamic basketball player.”

This and That

Conference USA proved its talent in the NIT, making FAU’s 18-2 league record look even more impressive. North Texas and UAB battled for the crown after beating Power 5 teams like Wisconsin, Oklahoma State and Vanderbilt. Said May: “It certainly affirms what we saw all season long. Every night was a battle, well-coached teams with great players.” Six Conference USA teams are heading to the American Athletic Conference in 2023.

Miami guard Filippos Gkogkos received the Elite 90 award on Friday, given to the student-athlete with the highest cumulative GPA at the finals site for every NCAA championship. The fourth-year junior from Greece has a 3.541 GPA and is a three-time member of the ACC Honor Roll.

May is expected to sign a long-term deal with FAU after its Final Four run, which he confirmed on Friday. “I learned a long time ago you never mess with happy. And so I know what makes me happy, and right now at this point in my career I couldn’t be any more pleased and happy with where we are and just continue to — just excited, to continue building.”

Miami had a special guest speaker after a team dinner on Thursday night. Former University of Florida basketball star Patric Young, who is fighting to walk again after a tragic car accident in 2022, addressed the Canes for around 20 minutes. “He did a fantastic job. He’s a terrific motivational speaker,” Larrañaga said.

University of Miami track and field sprinter Caleb Chevis sang the national anthem with three other student athletes representing FAU, San Diego State and UConn.

FAU guard Nick Boyd opened the game with a three-pointer. By the 11:53 mark of the first half, he had already surpassed his season average of 8.9 points with nine — all three-pointers.

The Owls held a game-high 10-point lead after guard Alijah Martin made a layup with 1:02 remaining in the first half. FAU used a 14-4 run, featuring six points from Giancarlo Rosado, to take a 40-30 lead.

FAU led San Diego State 40-33 at halftime. No team scored more than 33 points against the Aztecs in the first half of the NCAA Tournament until the Owls. Boyd had a team-high nine points followed by Martin’s seven.