''It Makes Us Want to Work Harder''
CORAL GABLES, Fla. – It was a season, an experience, a run none of them will ever forget.
Last March, the Hurricanes men’s basketball team claimed a share of the ACC regular-season title and as a five-seed, stormed through the NCAA Tournament, knocking off the likes of Drake, Indiana, top-seeded Houston, and second-seeded Texas to advance to the Final Four for the first time in program history.
And while Miami came short of reaching its ultimate goal of winning a national championship, its “magic carpet ride” of a season left an impression on veteran coach Jim Larrañaga and his players, who say that a new standard has now been set in Coral Gables.
“It was so special. I remember watching some of the highlights and a small documentary that they posted, and I remember just getting the jitters again and the feeling that I had from being able to win those games and make it to the Final Four. It’s like something I’ve never experienced in my life, honestly,” said fourth-year junior guard Nijel Pack. “It was so great to be able to get that feeling, but you know, we were almost there. It was right there. We could see it. Now we want that feeling of winning a national championship. …
“It kind of gives us a taste of it, but I feel like it still leaves more on the plate for us to finish. It gives us hunger. It makes us drive and it makes us want to work harder to get to that national championship.”
The Hurricanes, who start the season ranked No. 13 in the AP Top 25, will begin what they hope is another magical season on Monday when they return to the Watsco Center for their opener against the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
Four days later, they’ll celebrate that memorable Final Four run one more time when they raise a banner to the rafters ahead of a non-conference showdown against UCF.
But Miami’s players and coaches know while they can reflect on the lessons they learned from the season that was, they can’t dwell on it. Not if they want to continue getting better.
“We’re not where we’re going to need to be defensively and [in] rebounding in order to compete with the best teams in our league, the best teams in the country. Not there yet,” Larrañaga said. “But my staff is doing a great job of explaining to our players what needs to be done in order to get to where we want to be. Now, it’s going to be up to the players to do that, to really work at getting better at defense and rebounding because they, like the coaches, want to be every bit as good as we can possibly be.”
The Hurricanes return a core of players from last year’s team that posted a 29-8 overall record and went 15-5 in conference play.
Pack, who averaged 13.6 points, 2.7 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game, is back, as is 6-foot-7 forward Norchad Omier, who averaged 13.1 points and 10.0 rebounds per game.
Also returning is junior guard Wooga Poplar, who averaged 8.4 points a season ago, and is expected to be one of Miami’s biggest contributors this year, especially after the departures of scoring leaders Isaiah Wong and Jordan Miller, both of whom are now playing in the NBA.
If Poplar plays to his potential this year, Larrañaga says not only will that make a huge difference for Miami – it could help the 6-foot-5 guard join Wong and Miller in the Association soon enough.
“Wooga is a great competitor,” Larrañaga said. “He’s worked really hard to become a heck of a defensive player. I love it when he rebounds because that adds another dimension, kind of like [former Hurricanes guard and current Indiana Pacer] Bruce Brown, who’s a great rebounder as a guard. But Wooga Poplar is a phenomenal 3-point shooter, and he may be the best pull-up jump shooter in the country. His pull-up jump shot is as good as any NBA player and I’ve been around a lot of players.”
Also expected to make an impact and help Miami replace some of the scoring punch it lost with Wong and Miller’s departures is transfer Matthew Cleveland, who last season hit a remarkable game-winning, buzzer-beating shot at the Watsco Center – for Florida State.
Last season with the Seminoles, Cleveland was a top 10 candidate for the Julius Erving Award, which is given annually to the nation’s top small forward.
He played in 30 of 32 games and started each contest in which he appeared and averaged 13.8 points, 7.4 rebounds and 1.8 assists in 33.6 minutes per game. Cleveland also totaled 11 double-doubles, including eight in a row.
His February buzzer-beater from deep in 3-point range helped lift Florida State to a stunning win over the then 13th-ranked Hurricanes and gave Miami its only home loss last season.
And while there may have been some good-natured ribbing from his new teammates and coaches when he arrived in Coral Gables this summer after entering his name in the transfer portal, the Hurricanes know the former ACC Sixth Man of the Year will be an asset this year.
“I think he has adjusted extremely well. He and I have had multiple conversations, one in particular, where I asked him to think about how he could become more efficient,” Larrañaga said of Cleveland. “He can do a lot of really good things on the basketball court. … in Matt’s case, because he’s got a lot of different skills, we’ve encouraged him to use all of them, including passing. You might see him handle the ball on the fast break some. You might see him shoot threes. He’s very, very fast. You’re going to see him in the open court get some layups and he’s a very good defensive rebounder.”
For his part, Cleveland is eager to see how he can help the Hurricanes reach a new level – especially after seeing the success transfers like Miller, Pack and Omier have had at Miami.
“That was a big reason why I came here as well, just the success they had with him,” said Cleveland when asked about whether he can see the Hurricanes using his skills on the court in the same way they used Miller’s. “Even though … his game and my game are different in facets, the way they were able to use him, that’s something I feel like they can do with me, too.”
As the Hurricanes enter their new season, they know expectations are high. They expect and embrace the challenges that await.
But they feel confident they can rise to those challenges. They’ve done it before, and they’ve learned from it.
Now, they say, it’s time to build on their success.
“This is a new year. We haven’t accomplished anything yet. We haven’t played a single game yet, so I think we’ve got to put [last season] to bed and focus on the 2023-2024 season,” Omier said. “I think all the returners have that sour taste, the fact we made it that far and we didn’t close the deal. So, I think everybody wants to make it back to another Final Four and close the deal this year, win a national championship and make more history. The freshmen and the transfers, they ask me how the experience was, and I think they want to be part of something like that too. So, it’s just work hard and get to where we want to go.”