Miami’s magical NCAA Tournament run ended unceremoniously last season.
The Hurricanes, an overlooked No. 10 seed, were dismantled by eventual national champion Kansas, sending them home in need of replacing three key starters.
Refueled by transfers Norchad Omier and Nijel Pack, first-year starter Wooga Poplar and key returnees Jordan Miller and Isaiah Wong, Miami is back in the Elite Eight a year later, where they’ll play another Big 12 team in Texas.
Wong thinks this prior experience playing in the NCAA quarterfinals is crucial for the Hurricanes, who will play on Sunday at 5:05 p.m.
“I feel like last year we had a lot of knowledge of like how it was. So I feel like with this team this year, we’re just going to play through it,” Wong said. “We have me and Jordan [Miller] and Wooga [Poplar] to show Nijel [Pack] and [Norchad Omier] the experience and just help each other throughout the game tomorrow and just be the best version of each other.”
Head coach Jim Larrañaga agreed with Wong, saying that “what Wong said is really right. They experienced this last year. They understand the level of competition and what’s at stake, but Jordan and Isaiah and Wooga were on that team, and hopefully they can kind of help bridge the gap with the other guys on the team, including Nijel and Norchad, of getting them to know that it’s not about who we play and it’s not about where we play, but it is how we play.”
For Pack, Texas is a familiar foe, as the once-Kansas State Wildcat has faced the Longhorns three times in his career and played against Texas’ Tyrese Hunter and Marcus Carr last season.
“Both of those guys are really good guards. Playing against them was a challenge definitely. They’re definitely have the credit they have deserved. So it’s going to be a great game with the great guards we have and the great guards they have,” Pack said. “It’s going to come down to getting stops definitely and getting rebounds. We know how good of a team they are, but if we can play team defense and crowd the ball and things like that and don’t let them do the things they like to do, I think we can be really successful.”
Hunter is already familiar with the Hurricanes, as the sophomore guard started for Iowa State in the Cyclones’ loss to UM in last year’s Sweet 16.
“I think last year they played very fast. I think they was kind of everywhere on defense, just playing, trying to get out in transition. I really don’t see no difference this year,” Hunter said. “They kind of filled in the roles of the players they lost last year. Just getting out, running and jumping, playing fast up and down, and keeping the pace up.”
Hunter, along with All-Big 12 guards Carr and Sir’Jabari Rice, form an electric Texas backcourt. Carr, who averages 15.8 points per game, is the Longhorns’ leading point-scorer. Rice is second on Texas in scoring and has averaged 20.6 points over his three-game NCAA Tournament run.
Larrañaga compares Texas’ guards to North Carolina State’s Terquavion Smith and Jarkell Joiner, who combined for 31 points in the Wolfpack’s win over Miami in mid-Janurary. On the defensive end, North Carolina State also “pressures, denies, very much like Texas does,” according to the UM coach.
Slowing down Texas’ guards will be vital for Larrañaga’s Hurricanes, as they hope to cement themselves as the greatest team in Miami men’s basketball history.
Larrañaga, who led George Mason to an improbable Final Four run in 2006, isn’t satisfied with Miami’s second Elite Eight run in as many years. This message has rubbed off on UM forward Norchad Omier, who emphasized that Miami still has more to acheive.
“It feels great being part of this, making history,” Omier said. “It just feels good doing it with my brothers … but we’re not finished yet.”
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