When the Miami Hurricanes men’s and women’s basketball teams each walked off the Greensboro Coliseum’s hardwood floor in March, multiple concerns factored into neither hoisting a conference championship trophy.
Other Atlantic Coast Conference powerhouse teams, meanwhile, swarmed a confetti-layered center court as champions. The glaring issue of team health became more apparent when concerning how Miami basketball could find itself doing the same in the near future.
“There’s no way to anticipate who’s going to get hurt, when they’re going to get hurt, how long they’re going to be out,” said Miami head coach Jim Larrañaga, whose team advanced to the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament for the first time in three years, with only six scholarship players available.
Longing for regained conference dominance, the teams’ grueling offseason workouts, limitless film sessions and future recruiting efforts carried on for six months — a period of time resembling an approach of reset and recovery for a major chunk of the Hurricanes’ last half decade.
Suffering through another disappointing campaign last season, UM men’s basketball again finished in the cellar of the ACC with a 10-17 overall record and a 4-15 conference mark. The team struggled through a glut of devastating injuries, with key players Chris Lykes, Sam Waardenburg and Rodney Miller all missing almost the entire year, while other players nursed nagging injuries.
With a year of added transfers and four-star recruits, Larrañaga expressed optimism that the 2021-2022 season could be one where his program turns it around, with health in the minds of all.
“I’m excited about this year’s team. When we are completely healthy, I think we have a deep team,” Larrañaga said. “I’m optimistic we can get healthy and have a deep team, but the big picture is we have to stay healthy to have a good team.”
Sixth-year redshirt senior Sam Waardenburg, who elected to return to the team after sitting out all of last year with a Lisfranc injury, supported the idea of the team’s health being critical.
“Going into this year, it’s a lot nicer. We have 13 guys out there at practice,” said Waardenburg, who underwent two surgeries after sustaining the left foot fracture last October. “We finally have subs during our scrimmages at practice, and it’s good to be going up and down getting that kind of chemistry going as well, something we’ve not been able to build on in the last couple of years.”
Another factor pushing the Hurricanes towards a more successful season is the return of fans to the Watsco Center. After COVID-19 prevented fans from attending any home games last year, the new season will see a return to full capacity and what most hope to be a rowdier student section.
“I certainly think when our fans are out there cheering wildly for the Hurricanes, it’s a very good home court advantage. And without them last year, we sorely missed them,” Larrañaga said. “The Watsco Center is a great on-campus facility in that the students can walk to the arena. We’re very, very hopeful our fans and our student body will get out to our games in November and December, cheer us on to victory and get us off to a good start.”
Miami welcomes five fresh faces this season, two transfers and three freshmen. Larrañaga heaped praise onto transfer point guard Charlie Moore, describing the sixth-year floor general as someone who can “stretch the defense and make 3’s.”
“Charlie is clearly a point guard, but he is also an excellent shooter,” Larrañaga said. “When you’ve played in the Pac-12, the Big 12, the Big East and the ACC, you should be able to bring that experience to the court here at Miami this year.”
Fellow George Mason transfer Jordan Miller, on the other hand, is an athletic, versatile forward who will seek to make an impact in his first year in Coral Gables.
When asked about the team’s trio of freshmen, Larrañaga was quick to mention the play of Nisine “Wooga” Poplar, revealing his nickname as “Billy the Kid”. Larrañaga pointed out Poplar scored 20 points in 20 minutes during an inter-squad scrimmage, but still has room for improvement on the defensive end. All three freshmen will get a chance to play early to assess who is ready to get significant minutes and become a part of the team’s rotation.
This year’s Hurricanes squad returns two leading scorers from last year, Isaiah Wong and Kam McGusty. Both guards tested the NBA Draft waters last year, but instead elected to return to school.
“Them coming back was amazing, the energy after they announced they were coming back was very high,” Waardenburg said. “Those two have been working super hard, they have that extra chip on their shoulder.”
The infusion of new talent and returning, experienced veterans leave reason to be optimistic that the Hurricanes can rebound from a string of difficult years and return to the NCAA tournament, a stage they have not reached since 2018.
“For a lot of us right now, it’s our last chance,” Waardenburg said. “We want to do the best we can do to get this team where it needs to be, which is being in the tournament.”
Similar to the men’s squad, the women’s basketball team did not have the best season last year. The Hurricanes ended their season 11-11 and 8-10 in ACC play, finishing in a tie for ninth place. However, the Canes are back and readier than ever for the upcoming 2021-2022 season.
“We had a great summer. We made a lot of changes in our culture,” Miami head coach Katie Meier said. “Our roster looks different and there’s new energy. I love this team. They are competitive, scrapping, clawing and loud.”
Since half of the women on the roster this year are new additions, Meier expressed how she has been encouraging the returning players to step up and help make the transition smooth for their new teammates.
“This group of additions are very high-level. They are learning and playing at a very fast pace,” Meier said.
One of the new players Meier is most excited to have on the team is Utah transfer Lola Pendande.
“Lola slid right in. She is ready for a big role on this team, she’s a team player,” Meier said. “She scores low on the block, she can shoot the three, she’s very vocal, and she loves our defensive style.”
A rejuvenated team atmosphere has flourished. Many encouraging words have stemmed from Meier for some of the new freshmen on the team.
“Ja’Leah Williams, what a steal she was,” Meier said. “I call her the barracuda because her closing speed reminds me of when I’m fishing and got a nice fish on the line and a barracuda comes and just grabs my fish. That’s Ja’Leah.”
“Lashae Dwyer and Jasmyne Roberts are both very talented freshmen and have been hugely impactful to start” Meier added.
Returning from an ACL injury suffered prior to the start of last season, veteran point guard Mykea Gray is, at last, healthy and also highlighted Meier’s excitement. The team’s former steals leader is eager to get back on the court.
“She’s asking for a lot of film, showing a ton of leadership, being really vocal,” Meier said. “She’s the captain of the ship. She has to steer the direction of the team and isn’t settling for anything less than excellence.”
Gray has been forced to step up as a leader unlike any other season, as she was forced to only use her voice last winter.
“What has really helped me this year was locking down my goals, being determined, and not settling for average,” Gray said. “Sitting out last year has made me realize that I need to lead more, spend more time with my coaches, and understand the game better to help my team.”
With the return of previously injured stars and the addition of seven new and talented players, the common expectation for Hurricanes is a consistent, hardworking mentality in order to come out strong for the upcoming season.
“There’s just a different excitement level this year, a little bit more certainty, and we needed it,” Meier said.
Nick Marino and Jenna Rothenstein contributed to this story.