Future of UM basketball up in air with slew of players transferring out of program

Senior guard Elijah Olaniyi had a team-high 21 points in Miami's win over Duke on February 1 at the Watsco Center.
Senior guard Elijah Olaniyi had a team-high 21 points in Miami's win over Duke on February 1 at the Watsco Center. Photo credit: Josh Halper

Although Miami’s almost-enchanting run in the ACC Tournament concluded just over three-and-a-half weeks ago, many of the team’s student-athletes have begun determining where their next stops will be in the coming months.

“Every Division I head coach and assistant coaching staff are visiting that portal every day; some to find out maybe who you might recruit, and some to find out if your player just left you,” Miami head coach Jim Larrañaga said, who has heard there to be approximately 800 Division I college basketball players having entered the portal.

“So, it is the wild, wild West, we anticipated this happening. We’ve had a number of our guys announce [their decisions] and we’ve had a number of our guys still in wait-and-see mode.”

But Miami has already experienced enough change to its current roster heading into an offseason loaded with question marks, despite having entered the season with a great level of confidence on its potential future success.

Former Miami freshmen forwards Matt Cross and Earl Timberlake, both four-star recruits in the 2020 class, decided to find fresh starts elsewhere as the season drew to a close. Cross barely played half of the team’s 26 games before leaving the team mid-season, while Timberlake competed in a total of seven after dealing with an injury.

“I’ve been dealing with a whole lot this season as far as being away from home and ankle and shoulder injuries,” Timberlake told ESPN upon his transfer decision on March 14.

Cross, on the other hand, surprised many across college basketball when he declared that he would be transferring to ACC-rival Louisville in late February.

“Right now, it appears that especially with the NCAA rules changing from having to sit out a year to being eligible right away, kids are gonna look at the transfer portal as their vehicle for success,” Larrañaga said.

Larrañaga referred to former Miami guards Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan, each having transferred in from Kansas State and Texas. The two guards helped propel Miami to the Sweet 16 in the 2016 NCAA Tournament.

“There’s a very good chance, in their minds, that the grass is greener someplace else,” Larrañaga said. “But as we all know, in life, that’s not gonna be true for everyone. It’s gonna be true for some, transferring can be very, very helpful.”

UM has not stood alone this year, as a central theme of risk has arisen in almost every college basketball program when it comes to student-athletes’ decisions to transfer after their first year at programs similar to Larrañaga’s.

The trend of transferring has sparked additional entries into the transfer portal on an annual basis. A sense of forced adaptability has accompanied that as many teams will be forced to scramble until the start of training camp in the fall.

“It’s very, very challenging when the culture is ‘What have you done for me lately?’” Larrañaga said on student-athletes’ individual desires for success at the collegiate level, wherever that may ultimately transpire. “There’s no building of foundation where you bring in a freshman, he sits on your bench until he’s a junior, and develops in the system. Now, it’s come in as a freshman, play right away, prove that you’re good enough for the NBA, submit your name to the NBA Draft, and go pro.”

Senior guard Elijah Olaniyi, the Canes’ fourth-leading scorer who averaged 10.9 points per game after transferring in from Stony Brook, elected to leave Miami and transfer back to Stony Brook.

A former All-Conference honoree in the America East Conference, he had believed in Larrañaga and UM to guide him towards eventually playing in the NBA, though such visions have changed.

Another former newcomer to Miami, senior center Nysier Brooks has opted to spend his final year of NCAA eligibility at Mississippi after having averaged seven points and 5.8 rebounds per game for the Canes. The former Cincinnati standout announced his decision via social media on Monday.

Chris Lykes, another senior guard who had led the team in scoring during his sophomore and junior seasons, decided to turn professional until he opted to instead enter the transfer portal two days later, as he had also announced on social media Saturday. The 5-foot-7 playmaker had remained sidelined with an ankle injury for all but the first two games this season.

“I’m someone who believes that the NBA has their own criteria for what they like,” Larrañaga said. “There are so many things that you see like an NBA organization might feel is important, and others don’t. There are players, if you recall last year in the [NBA] Draft, Patrick Williams was a very good freshman in the ACC at Florida State; he didn’t even start at Florida State. So, whatever those NBA guys feel is probably different from one franchise to another. In my opinion, Chris had himself a heck of a three-year career here.”

Larrañaga added that Lykes would have graduated as the fifth-leading scorer in UM history, had he not endured the season-ending setback.

Though regardless of the guards’ respective decisions, close to none of Miami’s top scorers will be back in Coral Gables next season, creating another sense of worry similar to a feeling shared by many over recent years.

It was also revealed that senior guard Kameron McGusty, Miami’s second-leading scorer at 12.7 points per game, would be adding his name to the NBA Undergraduate Advisory Committee. Doing so will give the former Oklahoma transfer a clearer idea of where NBA executives would envision him landing in the NBA Draft this June.

“I think his focus is on that he can play in the NBA, so I think if his prospects don’t look great, when the report comes back from the advisory committee, I think there’s a very good chance Kam will be back in a Miami uniform next year,” Larrañaga said.

Sophomore guard Isaiah Wong — the team’s leading scorer this past season at 17.3 points per game — will also submit his name to gauge NBA interest, according to Larrañaga.

The former ACC Coach of the Year has not remained in favor of players’ decisions to pack up early from college and depart for the NBA Draft, though.

“Looking at it from a historical point of view, I’m someone that has been at it for at least a few years, and the culture has completely changed,” Larrañaga said on student-athletes’ desires to move on sooner than later. “Almost every college basketball player, I don’t care what level he’s at, low-major, mid-major, high-major, whether he’s a freshman, sophomore, junior, senior, fifth-year senior, transfer student, the main goal is to get to the NBA, and I think that’s tragic.”

The door for opportunity has now opened wider not only for other backcourt members, but also for the team’s three recruits in Bensley Joseph, Nisine Poplar, and Jakai Robinson, as well as any transfers, to make an impact.

“Wooga [Nisine] Poplar is still playing,” Larrañaga said on Poplar’s high school team’s success. “They’re in the state championship, Wooga made a 3-pointer at the end of the semifinals last week to win the game. He’s having an incredible senior year, he’s a very gifted athlete who can shoot. And then Jakai Robinson, his senior season has been a little bit more of an up-and-down year because of COVID, but he’s doing very well.”

Larrañaga said that he expects both Poplar and Robinson to attend summer school at UM, prior to a “typical summer” before beginning full preparation for the season in the fall.

Nonetheless, Larrañaga and his coaching staff look forward to the development that he has always welcomed with open arms throughout his journey at UM.

“Quite honestly, what I enjoy is getting on the court and just working with guys,” Larrañaga said. “Whether a guy is a freshman, a transfer, a senior, it doesn’t matter to me. What matters to me is the three things that we preach all time: attitude, commitment, and class. Understand that life is 10 percent of what happens to you and 90 percent of how you react to it, and that there’s always going to be adversity in your life.”

With such mindset, the team’s coaching and basketball operations staff remain honed in on formulating the best possible future for Miami basketball, as some pieces including sophomores Harlond Beverly and Anthony Walker will likely return.

Redshirt senior Sam Waardenburg will also return while pursuing a master’s degree in the fall, having sat out with a foot injury suffered in a preseason practice last October.

Deng Gak, a redshirt junior forward who averaged 13.7 minutes per game, and senior center Rodney Miller have yet to announce their individual decisions. Miller played in only five games before a knee injury sidelined him for the remainder of the year.

“We’re going to continue to recruit and solidify our roster because even if a senior comes back, he doesn’t take up one of your 13 scholarships,” Larrañaga said on the NCAA’s determination to allow winter sport student-athletes an extra year of eligibility. “As far as I’m concerned, we have a certain number of underclassmen that are returning, we’ve got a certain number of commitments, and we’re trying to balance that roster.”

More shorthanded than ever, Miami expects to begin receiving transfer portal commitments in the coming months, with the coaching staff linking up with names including forward Toumani Camara of Georgia and East Carolina’s Jayden Gardner.