Miami is a tough job and looking back, Jim Larranaga, who had been at George Mason, was a brilliant hire.
At Mason he could not recruit the same players the power conference schools went after, so he perfected a knack of finding guys who were just a little off, who for whatever reason, were passed over: too small, too heavy, maybe with a missing tool in their skillset that someone else on the team could compensate for.
Consistently at Mason, the whole was greater than the sum of the parts and Larranaga peaked there with a miraculous Final Four run in 2006 including a spectacular win over Jim Calhoun’s UConn.
He’s been able to recruit better talent to Miami, but still has a knack for finding underappreciated players. He’s also worked the transfer portal very well.
After an uncharacteristic three years of losing, Miami got back on track last season (as always, we give a pass to the Covid year so let’s say two rather than three). There were some key injuries for those teams as well. Luck is always part of things, and Miami’s was just bad for a while.
Last year the ‘Canes bounced back, finishing 26-11, including a win at Duke and a brilliant, highly entertaining NCAA run to the Elite Eight. Only eventual national champion Kansas kept Larranaga from a second Final Four. Miami knocked off a talented USC squad 68-66 and then became the second ACC team to thump Bruce Pearl’s Auburn team in recent NCAA tournaments, 79-61 (Clemson pounded Auburn 84-53 in 2018 and, like Miami, lost to Kansas in the following game).
Then came a big win over Iowa State before running into the Jayhawks. It was one of the finest runs in recent NCAA history, in our opinion, and Miami was superb throughout. It really underscored what a tremendous coach Larranaga is.
He loses a lot from that team: Sam Waardenburg, Charlie Moore, Kameron McGusty, Rodney Miller and Deng Gak are all gone.
Miller and Gak are no big deal. Gak was a highly coveted recruit who had injuries throughout his career and never lived up to what was expected of him in basketball. On the other hand, he, like former Duke star Luol Deng, was a Dinka whose family left Somalia during its Civil War and, like Deng, lived in Egypt for a time. Also like Deng, he went to Blair Academy and then an ACC school. He was born to a family in a nomadic culture who became refugees and now has a college degree in America. Who cares about basketball in the face of that? His life is a miracle.
The other three are really big losses. Waardenburg was a tremendous outside shooter who opened the floor for his teammates, who took full advantage.
We didn’t expect much from Moore, who transferred to Miami after previously playing at DePaul, Kansas and Cal.
Boy did he prove us wrong. The 5-11 basketball vagabond was hugely effective. In particular he killed Duke in Cameron, a gym he said he dreamed of playing in.
McGusty was highly effective as well. All three are going to be hard to replace.
Unlike just about anywhere else, Miami had no transfers and they do have some very solid players back, starting with Isaiah Wong.
The 6-4 Wong, a redshirt junior, has a chance of sticking with an NBA team when he gets there. He’s legit. He needs to improve his shooting and probably ball handling but he has had a tremendous career at Miami thus far and is likely to be their best player this year. He was in the news this off-season for other reasons - not legal - which we’ll get to in a bit.
Jordan Miller, a 6-7 senior, brings lots of energy and bounce. He’s a good defender, as you’ll see in this clip, and smart too. Any coach would be happy to have him. Like his coach he came to Miami from George Mason.
Harlond Beverly, a 6-6 redshirt sophomore, only played in four games last year before having season-ending back surgery. If he’s fully recovered and ready to go, he should help. He can help with ball handing and defense. Offense is a work in progress, complicated by injury.
Bensley Joseph, a 6-2 sophomore, was in the rotation last season, getting 13.3 mpg. He didn’t score a lot, but as a point guard, it’s not necessary. He may inherit Moore’s spot.
Wooga Poplar, a 6-5 sophomore, played in 34 games last year so he should become more of a factor this season. He’s versatile and is another athletic wing.
Jakai Robinson, yet another midsized athlete at 6-5, redshirted last season. Hard to know what to expect since no one has seen him play in college yet.
Larranaga picked up two transfers and both are interesting for very different reasons.
Norchad Omier transfers in from Arkansas State. He’s 6-7 and 248 and was a dynamic rebounder for the Red Wolves. He obviously brings power. His background is what’s interesting: he’s the first D-1 scholarship player from Nicaragua for starters. But he’s from the Mosquito Coast, and that area has an amazing history. If you like such things, you really should read about his hometown of Bluefields.
The other is Nigel Pack, who comes over from Kansas State, where he was regarded as one of the best shooters in school history. A sophomore from Indianapolis, Indiana, he went to Lawrence Central High which has produced, among many others, Kyle Guy and Jake LaRavia and, further back, former NC State coach Norm Sloan.
Pack scored 17.4 ppg last season and hit 45.5 on threes. He also got nearly four boards a game, which is pretty good for a 6-0 guy. You can pencil him in as a starter but even if he’s not, he’ll get starter minutes. Pack has a good shot - pun intended - of making one of the All-ACC teams.
The greatest part of his transfer was when it came out that he signed a deal with Life Wallet, which is owned by Miami booster John Ruiz. He’s getting $800,000 for two years and he also gets a car.
Wong’s agent, Adam Papas, who also represents Pack, tried to play it: he threatened that Wong would “transfer tomorrow” if his NIL payouts didn’t go up. Essentially, Papas wanted him to get more money than Pack, for whom he had just gotten a deal. Ruiz countered that he had a deal and does “NOT renegotiate.”
Apparently he spoke out of turn. The next day, Wong issued his own statement: “The recent statements made without any authorization on my behalf do not reflect my views and in no way was I willing to jeopardize my relationship with LifeWallet or the University of Miami. After discussing the matter with my family I was able to clarify my intentions and resolve any misunderstandings with both organizations and have since agreed to move forward with established agreements made prior to any confusion.
“My priority is to act with the highest level of character and integrity. Any further statements will be made by me personally.”
Translation: My agent spoke without my consent and I’m reining his ass in right now.
Or at least that is the public version. It’s hard to believe that Papas would cut that deal and then say “no fair! My other guy is getting less! Almost certainly what happened is that Wong saw the deal and thought he was getting screwed. This is somewhat supported by Ruiz, who said that while he would not renegotiate, he would help Wong find other deals. Sounds like a compromise solution.
Ruiz is essentially the face of college corruption gone legit: he has deals with 111 Miami athletes and is not hiding his intent to get quality athletes to attend his favorite school. NIL is still a Brave New World but we thought this circus would have happened at Kentucky or UNLV first. It’s clear that Larranaga, and whoever follows him, have an extra tool in their recruiting pack now.
At any rate, Papas, Ruiz, Wong and, through no fault of his own Pack, made late April highly entertaining. You can imagine what the basketball office was like for those two days. It must have been hilarious.
Miami also brings in a solid freshman class: AJ Casey, 6-9/213, out of Chicago’s Whitney Young, Christian Watson, 6-7/209 from Lanham, Maryland, Nigerian Favour Aire, 6-11/215 who attended Bishop McNamara in Maryland and Danilo Jovanovich, 6-8/219 from Milwaukee.
In high school, Casey played mostly inside but later began to unveil a better all-around game with much more range. He’s also apparently a decent ball handler. He’ll be a factor and possibly really good early.
Watson attended St. John’s, a consistent power in the DMV. He’s got a nice mid-range game and can hit a few threes as well. He can also finish inside.
The great Hakeem Olajuwon must be a problem for tall Nigerians who came after him because as soon as a basketball fan sees a big man from Nigeria, the expectations are skewed. He’s a defense-first player at this point, but has a 7-5 wingspan and says he can hit a 15-17 foot jumper and is working on his threes. If he can play defense, rebound and score inside, that’s plenty for now. Miami really needs him to produce early.
Finally, Jovanovich. He could surprise of course, but he’s a Top 200 recruit and near the end of that list. That’s all crap, of course. People mature at different rates and the analysts can’t typically project who will radically improve, as the career paths of Bill Russell, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman attest. You don’t want to rule out Jovanovich being a surprise, but there’s not a lot to go on. He seems like a guy who might mature into a solid player later. Jury’s out.
Overall, Miami has significant talent. The concerns are size - only Aire is over 6-9 - and three point shooting. Larranaga did fine with a shorter team last year, with only Waardenburg being a regular big and he was usually stationed behind the three point line. That’s something to keep an eye on.
However, the ‘Canes have a highly promising backcourt with Wong and Pack. We’re not sure if Pack is going to handle point or if Miami will go with a three-guard offense again or maybe do it by committee.
Ornier and Casey should be able to provide some muscle inside too, particularly Ornier. Miller is a real asset as well and then Larranaga has a bunch of midsized athletes who can come in and, at a minimum, provide versatile defenders. If a couple of those guys really advance, look out.
Long story short, Miami has issues but significant talent. They also have a brilliant coach who has long since proven he can do more with less than most of his colleagues. We expect he’ll know what to do with this group too and have them back in the NCAA tournament.