Miami followed a historic campaign last year with an excellent offseason, so why were expectations not higher for this group?
The 2023 NCAA Tournament will be forever remembered as an outlier.
It’s the first tournament ever without a top-3 seed in the Final Four. It’s the first tournament in which there were zero 1-seeds in the Elite Eight, too. It’s also the first Final Four without a former McDonald’s All-American.
UConn enters as the blueblood of the group, searching for its fifth national championship in 23 tournaments. Yes, the Huskies came in as a 4-seed, but they are the top-rated team on KenPom right now and entered the tournament in the top five.
The rest of the Final Four is making their first respective appearances on the sport’s grandest stage — to the surprise of most. Florida Atlantic, a 9-seed from Conference USA, had not won an NCAA Tournament game in its history. San Diego State, a 5-seed from the Mountain West, is the first team from that league to ever make the Elite Eight, let alone the Final Four. Miami had not made the Elite Eight before last season; now, the Canes have taken the next step.
And last year’s run is what makes Miami different from the other first-timers.
The ‘Canes returned nearly half their minutes from last season’s team, headlined by ACC Player of the Year Isaiah Wong and fellow double-digit scorer Jordan Miller. Then, Miami went out and added two of the best transfers available, both of whom filled needs on the roster. Nijel Pack (Kansas State) replaced the shooting void left by Kameron McGusty and Charlie Moore while giving Wong an elite backcourt mate. Norchad Omier (Arkansas State) stepped in to fill the interior role that Sam Waardenburg had played, and Omier brought a rebounding and defensive presence Miami hadn’t really had under Jim Larrañaga.
When a team makes a long NCAA Tournament run and comes back with those things — experience, high-level returners and elite newcomers — that team is typically among the highest-ranked going into the next season. Heck, look how North Carolina was treated in the offseason after the Heels added Pete Nance to their crop of returning stars.
Miami didn’t get that kind of love.
While UNC was tabbed as the early No. 1, the Hurricanes weren’t ranked at all in either the AP or coaches’ preseason Top 25. Here at HeatCheckCBB, we ranked Miami No. 24, despite calling them “very talented” and noting that they “might be better” than last season’s Elite Eight qualifiers.
Instead, we focused on the negatives, namely the lack of height and depth (326th in bench minutes). Miller and Omier are the tallest players in the starting lineup at 6-7, and Anthony Walker (6-9) is the only taller player that sees consistent playing time. There were questions about Omier’s ability to produce at this level, taking a step up from the Sun Belt.
There was also that whole NIL snafu, in which the program made headlines when Wong threatened to transfer if his compensation didn’t match up with the highly publicized deals Omier and Pack secured. Those negative headlines led to chemistry concerns, which of course played a role in the team’s less-than-rosy preseason perception. But those perceived issues never materialized on the floor — or anywhere else, for that matter.
“You want your players to really bond on the court, off the court,” Larranaga told reporters after Sunday’s win over Texas. “And I’ll tell you, last summer when Nijel Pack and Norchad Omier came into the gym, Nijel just bonded with [Isaiah Wong] right away. ‘Zay’ loved having him. They played great together. Norchad, his personality is just amazing. You can’t help but fall in love with the guy.”
Hindsight is 20/20, but this Miami run — this entire season of success, really — is something we all should’ve seen coming.
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