Suddenly, Wally Szczerbiak goes to class and it's as if he never left the basketball court.
"We got in last night at 3 a.m. and there was a big welcome," he said Monday. "A lot of students were waiting for us. Today in class, I got a standing ovation when I walked in. The campus is buzzing."
Szczerbiak and Miami of Ohio already have done better in the NCAA tournament than any team in school history. A 66-58 victory over Utah on Sunday marked the first time that the 10th-seeded RedHawks had won two games in the tournament.
After upsetting last year's title game runner-up, Miami (24-7) will play defending champion Kentucky (27-8) on Friday in St. Louis. The back-to-back games against Final Four teams give the RedHawks a chance to take their program to an unprecedented level.
"That's kind of interesting the way it works out," Szczerbiak said. "To knock off the second-place team in the whole country and now to have the opportunity to knock off the best, that's an opportunity a lot of teams don't get. We want to make the best of it."
With coach Charlie Coles recovered from his cardiac arrest at last year's Mid-American Conference tournament and Szczerbiak back for his senior season, Miami expected big things from the outset.
The RedHawks broke into the Top 25 for the first time in 20 years and won the MAC's regular-season championship.
They had to settle for an at-large bid after losing the MAC tournament title game to Kent in which Szczerbiak played despite a knee injury.
Coles gave his players the next two days off, a move that made all the difference. Szczerbiak's knee healed and the RedHawks pulled themselves out of their funk.
"Coach gave us two days off to totally get away from basketball and take our minds off the game," Szczerbiak said. "That really helped everyone get better physically and refresh our minds. It was like basketball was fun again. It was enjoyable and we've carried that on through the NCAA tournament."
Szczerbiak carried them through a first-round win over Washington, piling up 43 points of his team's 59 points.
He had 24 points in the victory over Utah, which didn't make the same mistake of leaving him open. Coles laughed Monday when asked if he thinks any other team will make that mistake.
"Oh, no," he said. "I hope people do, but I don't think so anymore."
Coles decided to return to coaching this season after his near-death experience on court a year ago in part because he was so close to his senior class. Watching them in the NCAA tournament has been extremely gratifying.
"We've been a team that's been through some heartaches together," Coles said. "It means a lot, but it means more for me after a game like yesterday to see that they're really happy and we've got another game together."
Miami played Kentucky in the second round in 1978 and lost 91-69Kentucky has won the last 17 games and leads their series 19-4.
"They're very talented and very deep and like to dictate the tempo," Szczerbiak said. "We're going to have to try to dictate our own tempo and slow the game down a little bit. If we can do that, we feel we can match up well."
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