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Scouting the Canes: UConn men’s basketball faces dangerous Miami offense

The Canes are loaded with athletic shotmakers that could frustrate UConn’s defense.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional- Miami (FL) vs Texas Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Two plucky, shot-making guards paired with a mismatch tweener. Sounds a lot like Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright, and DeAndre Daniels in 2014, right?

It’s also an apt description for Miami’s Nijel Pack, Isaiah Wong, and Jordan Miller. The Canes have stormed their way to the Final 4 on the backs of this talented trio.

UConn men’s basketball is now the highest-ranked seed left. It’s the No. 1 team in KenPom and outmatches five-seed Miami in nearly every statistical category.

But the Canes’ upsets over top-seed Houston and two-seed Texas should be warning shots for Husky fans. While the Canes may not have UConn’s offensive and defensive feng shui, they do have the type of roster makeup that seems to always take down giants in March.

I was actually in attendance the last time UConn played Miami, an 80-55 blowout in the 2019 Charleston Classic consolation game. It was such an evisceration that I had Centre College soccer’s NCAA tournament game pulled up on my computer. It won’t be like that again on Saturday. The Canes are playing their best ball at the right time, and the closer you look at their roster, the scarier they seem.

Jim Larranaga may be one of the most underrated coaches in the country, having taken Miami to back-to-back Elite Eights and now its first Final Four. He already broke the hearts of Husky fans in 2006 with George Mason, and he has a roster capable of doing it again.

Here’s what makes this Miami team tick:

Five Out

Sure, Gonzaga was ‘analytically’ the best offense in the country, but Miami’s seems more dangerous where it matters. Larranaga puts five fast-twitch athletes on the floor that can either take you off the dribble or shoot over you. No one is over 6’7, which might doom the Canes on defense but makes for a nightmare to chase around the court.

There’s no de facto point guard setting the table through designed sets; Larranaga runs his guards through ball screens set by 6’7 bruiser Norchad Omier and lets the offense flow from there. Overzealous ball pressure could result in whistles due to Miami’s quickness. The Huskies will also need to be sharp on back cuts, track Miami’s continuous off-the-ball movement, and be cautious with overhelping.

They Take Turns

The Miami triumvirate of Wong, Pack, and Miller all landed on the All-Midwest Region team. They account for 62% of Miami’s offense. No disrespect to Omier or Wooga Poplar, but if the Huskies shut down Wong, Pack, and Miller, they move on. So far in the NCAA Tournament, each has had their turn: Wong dropped 27 on the Hoosiers, Pack poured in 26 vs. Houston, and Miller put up 27 vs. Texas.

Inside/Out Game

Think of them as a more polished version of the trio of Arkansas guards that UConn stifled. They all shoot better than 35% from three, but pick their spots efficiently; the Canes only hit two (!) threes vs. Texas, yet were 66% on twos and 28/32 from the charity stripe. Miller himself went a perfect 13/13 from the line.

Cutting off angles and forcing straight line drives —without fouling — will once again be important against the Canes’ crafty finishers. After spending all March kvetching about foul-prone UConn, it was refreshing to see the Huskies commit only six fouls in the first half vs. Arkansas, and five vs. Gonzaga. They’ll need that discipline on Saturday.

Miami can hit threes — going 11/25 from behind the arc against Houston and 9/23 line vs. Indiana. But in general, they rely on that low-volume, high-percentage sweet spot. The Canes shoot five less threes per game (20.5) than UConn, but hits them at a better clip (36.9%). Unlike the Razorbacks, you can’t really pack the paint vs. the Canes.

They Don’t Turn the Ball Over

The Canes are 43rd in the country in turnover rate. In the tournament, they average 9.75 per game, compared to UConn’s 12. That’s so damn impressive considering how free-flowing Miami’s offense is. Dan Hurley and the UConn coaching staff have an interesting decision to make regarding ball pressure. Do you ramp it up, in the hopes that it disrupts their flow, or do you ease off a little, knowing free throws and fouls could kill momentum on the spot?

Leader of the Pack

Everyone was buzzing about Marquis Nowell, the undersized Kansas State firebrand from New York City that was supposedly ‘pulling a Kemba.’ First off, put some respect on Mr. Walker’s name. Secondly, Nijel Pack is the 6’1 guard that actually took his team to the Final 4. The Midwest Region’s Most Outstanding Player has unlimited range and will need to be checked the second he crosses halfcourt. The Kansas State transfer has 13 threes, third-most in the NCAA tournament. Tristen Newton may have the size advantage on offense, but Pack’s quickness will be a problem on the defensive end for the Huskies.

The Wong That Got Away

Isaiah Wong took a visit to UConn as a recruit, but the New Jersey native ultimately took his talents to South Beach. I can just imagine Dan Hurley doing a Calhoun impression: “I took James Bouknight and Jalen Gaffney, they’re not bad!” When Wong led Miami to the Elite 8 last year while Gaffney put up zero points in six minutes vs. New Mexico State, it stung.

The ACC Player of the Year has this silky smooth feel to his game that seems made for the bright lights of March. He can score in isolation, transition, or in pick-and-rolls. He’s drawn 20 fouls this tournament and is one of the best two-foot finishers in college. His length makes those midrange shots seem okay, and he does most of his damage from the elbow.

Meet the Miller

Wong and Pack might get the headlines, but Jordan Miller is the biggest matchup nightmare. At 6’7, the ambidextrous lefty is shooting a 74% clip (17/23) at the rim. We mentioned he was perfect from the line vs. Texas, but did we also mention he was PERFECT FROM THE WHOLE DAMN FIELD? The last person to have done that in the Elite 8 is Christian Laettner.

He’s not a point guard, but has nine assists to three turnovers in the tournament. You can put the clamps on him with Andre Jackson, but that then leaves Wong guarded by Jordan Hawkins, a capable defender in his own right but one that absolutely cannot be in foul trouble.

The Other Guys

So far we’ve covered Wong, Miller, and Pack. But Miami is also in Houston right now because starters Wooga Poplar and Norchad Omier are role players who have elevated their game in March.

Poplar is the perfect complementary ‘three-and-D’ player to pair with Miami’s ball-dominant trio. The 6’5 sophomore stuffed the stat sheet vs. Texas with 16 points, six rebounds, four assists, two steals, and no turnovers. He’s averaging 12 points per game in the tournament after bouts of inconsistency in the regular season. He’s also Miami’s best perimeter defender, likely tasked with running Hawkins off the three-point line.

Omier gets the unenviable task of banging with Adama Sanogo and Donovan Clingan down low, but the 6’7, 248-pound tank is up for the task. He joins the guard trio in double-digit scoring (13.3), and is one of 14 players in the country to average a double-double (10.1 rebounds per game). Omier sits 14th in the country in offensive rebounds per game at 3.6. The Arkansas State transfer is the former Sun Belt defensive player of the year and earned third-team All-ACC honors this year.

However, he commits 4.2 fouls per 40 minutes, and found himself on the bench early vs. Texas. He’s also Miami’s only rotation player that weighs more than 215 pounds. If 6’9 Texas big man Dylan Disu is healthy vs. the Canes to take advantage of the size mismatch, who knows what would have happened. The continuous low-post strength delivered by Sanogo and Clingan will wear Omier down.

Between Omier’s rebounding prowess and Poplar — who boxes out on 38.9% of rebounds, via Stats Perform — UConn must continue to rebound at an elite rate. Both Omier and Poplar are lunch pail role players that offset the razzle-dazzle of Miami’s three stars.

Defense, Depth, and Wrinkles

Miami’s bench has only mustered 19 points in four tournament games, while the Huskies bench has poured in 84. Once more, this will be a game where depth can run a team out of the gym in the second half.

Don’t dismiss Miami’s 104th KenPom defense either; Miller, Omier, and Poplar are excellent 1v1 defenders. Pack’s size and Wong’s inconsistency mean the poor metrics are more attributable to mismatches, ones that Hurley and the coaching staff must hunt and exploit on Saturday. But individually, Miami has the athletes to defend, and Larranaga could copy the blueprint Mark Few and Gonzaga used with a hard hedge on Husky ball handlers.

Rob Dauster on his podcast also noted Few started the Zags’ worst defender, travelin’ Drew Timme, on Andre Jackson. This is sometimes called the ‘Rondo effect,’ where you sag a defender in the paint on the opposing team’s worst offensive player. However, Jackson has been reforged into a unique weapon on that end, while Sanogo has been a revelation passing out of double teams. It backfired for Gonzaga, but does Larranaga try that with Wong on Jackson?

Given the advantages UConn has over Miami across the board, you have to assume Larranaga will be trying something. It will be fascinating to see what wrinkles Miami trots out to slow down the UConn juggernaut.