Veteran leadership and new talent: Miami men’s and women’s basketball preview

Senior Mykea Gray looks to pass the ball during practice on Oct. 26 in the Miami Fieldhouse. Gray missed all of last season with a ACL tear.
Senior Mykea Gray looks to pass the ball during practice on Oct. 26 in the Miami Fieldhouse. Gray missed all of last season with a ACL tear. Photo credit: Josh Halper

In the past few years, Miami’s men’s and women’s basketball programs demonstrated promise to compete in the very talented Atlantic Coast Conference, but for both teams, the hunt for a return to the NCAA tournament still looms.

The 2021-22 season may be the time that both programs overcome that obstacle. The Hurricanes return veteran leadership and introduce talent in the form of high school recruits and NCAA transfer portal products. Although neither enters the season with rankings in the major polls, they are prepared to begin their campaigns with regained confidence and high personal expectations.

“I think there’s going to be a newness to the team, it’s going to be very odd,” Miami women’s basketball head coach Katie Meier said. “We have a lot of new, and then there’s great returners and not a lot in between. So, either it’s your first year at Miami or it’s your fifth year.”

Last season, the women suffered a loss early in the ACC Tournament after hobbling through the regular season without starting senior point guard Mykea Gray.

“A lot of people take advantage of playing basketball, and when you have an injury like I did, you get to sit out and learn and just realize you can’t take this for granted,” said Gray, who tore her ACL at the start of last season. “It pretty much taught me I needed to talk more, lead more. I wasn’t able to lead on the court, so I decided to lead on the sideline.”

Gray, a 2019-2020 ACC All-Defensive team selection, along with graduate student Kelsey Marshall and redshirt senior Destiny Harden, established the standards early.

“The freshmen, they’re eager to learn. They’re very excited,” Gray said. “They do everything you pretty much ask for. I’m excited to see them play, I know they will play a lot.”

One freshman the Hurricanes are excited about is guard Ja’Leah Williams, who has meshed well on the court with Gray.

“People will absolutely fall in love with how hard she plays, how fun she is,” Meier said of Williams. “That’s just a special kid that has a lot of confidence, a lot of swag. Very respectful, but I certainly believe she will be impactful in this program and is not looking back.”

As senior forward Naomi Mbandu returns, a different frontcourt follows. Transfer forwards Lola Pendande and Maeva Djaldi-Tabdi share the load of filling the departures left by Brianna Jackson, Sydnee Roby and Nyayongah Gony.

“You can feel it in practice when we need energy, and we need hype, and we need freshness and people diving on the floor,” Meier said.

Third-year sophomore Isaiah Wong drives to the basket during practice on Oct. 26 in the Miami Fieldhouse. Wong was named a pre-season All-ACC First Team selection.
Third-year sophomore Isaiah Wong drives to the basket during practice on Oct. 26 in the Miami Fieldhouse. Wong was named a pre-season All-ACC First Team selection. Photo credit: Josh Halper

On the men’s side, the team looks to reach its first NCAA Tournament since 2018, with a reason to believe in achieving that goal. A team that has been hampered with injuries for years is fully healthy, and new voices have fostered an energetic culture into the program.

“We come into this season pretty healthy,” head coach Jim Larrañaga said. “I think we can compete with all of the teams on our schedule.”

Miami welcomes five fresh faces into the program, including two transfers – guards Charlie Moore and Jordan Miller.

Larrañaga described Moore as “a very good facilitator,” while revealing Miller as the team’s leading offensive rebounder who has shot roughly 60% in practices.

Freshmen Bensley Joseph, Jakai Robinson and Wooga Poplar will strive to supplement the scoring and grit of the returning upperclassmen. Two former UM freshmen, Earl Timberlake and Matt Cross, transferred out of the program last season.

Veterans Sam Waardenburg, Harlond Beverly and Rodney Miller Jr., led from the sidelines for the majority of last season because of injury. Their return offers depth to one of the oldest teams in college basketball.

“Experience is a huge thing in college basketball,” forward Sam Waardenburg said. “It’s going to help having that senior leadership on the team…I feel like we can come out of here and surprise a lot of people.”

Last year’s two leading scorers, Isaiah Wong and Kameron McGusty, will lead Miami’s resurgence. Both are determined to guide the Hurricanes out of the bottom of the conference to the NCAA Tournament stage. Wong, a preseason All-ACC first team selection, is already getting looks from NBA scouts and will no doubt be one of Miami’s leading scorers this year.

“It’s just about staying healthy and team chemistry,” McGusty said. “If we do those things, we shouldn’t have any problem making it to the tournament.”