Bensley Joseph and Wooga Poplar just love to dance. So when head coach Jim Larrañaga busted out the moves in the locker room after the Hurricanes advanced to the Elite Eight, the two guards had to join him.
Joseph and Poplar positioned themselves on either side of Miami’s all-time winningest coach, and the trio was soon line dancing, swinging their arms back and forth to the beat. The spectacle sums up Poplar and Joseph’s unique relationship perfectly.
“That’s just showing how me and Bensley work with each other,” Poplar said. “Last year at the Elite Eight, we [were] probably like the only ones dancing.”
Bensley’s a “good dancer,” according to Poplar, but Joseph knows where he stands.
“I mean [Poplar’s] talented [at] dancing; I’m just trying to catch up to him,” Joseph said.
The two sophomores arrived in Coral Gables together — Joseph from Massachusetts and Poplar from Philadelphia — and are leaning on each other through their college basketball journey.
As freshmen, both players were reserves on a historic Hurricanes team that made its first Elite Eight in program history. However, Poplar described that time as a “process.” He went from winning a state championship in high school to averaging just 2.6 points in 8.6 minutes per game his freshman year.
Fortunately, Poplar could always talk to someone going through a similar experience.
[Joseph and I] have a special bond … if I have a bad game, if he [has] a bad game, we always [tell] each other to cheer up, like ‘Yo, you’ll get it next game, don’t worry about the game,” Poplar said.
There’s a reason they always room together when the team travels.
But times have now changed. Poplar immediately showcased his offseason improvement with a 20-point game against St. Francis Brooklyn in November. He continued to provide an offensive boost through the year as a regular starter and contributed a team-high 18 points to help Miami edge Pittsburgh for a share of the ACC regular season title in March.
One year after playing single-digit minutes, Poplar’s usage rate has skyrocketed. The 6-foot-5, 192-pound guard is averaging nearly 24 minutes a game, along with 8.7 points and 3.3 rebounds.
“Wooga, I mean, I think he’s taken the biggest jump to be honest,” veteran forward Anthony Walker said. “His defense he’s played in this tournament is crazy. He’s just becoming himself.”
Joseph, meanwhile, has always been a defensive specialist, instantly making an impact on last year’s Elite Eight team. The Arlington, Massachusetts, native continues to excel defensively and is starting to pick up on offense, more than doubling his points and assists per game since last season.
While both players were still finding their footing last year, they have been essential during Miami’s Final Four run this March.
“It’s been really different [this year in the NCAA tournament], just having a more impactful role to this team,” Joseph said. “Last year I was a freshman, so it was kind of more of a learning year for me, but I was still in there, just not producing as much as I can this year.”
With Poplar turning into a lockdown defender, the ‘Canes limited their first two NCAA tournament opponents, Drake and Indiana, to 62.5 points per game. When the offense struggled in the Round of 64, anything other than a complete defensive effort would have sent the Hurricanes home early.
Joseph had two steals and one block against the Hoosiers, while Poplar registered two steals against Drake. When one player gets going, the other starts to heat up.
“I just know when I’m on the court and he’s on the court, I know he’s going to play as hard as he can, and I’m just going to try to match his energy,” Joseph said.
And Poplar and Joseph aren’t done yet. Both players have an opportunity to shine on college basketball’s biggest stage come Saturday night, and with two more years of eligibility, they have ample time to continue making a mark.
“They’re such good athletes that their skill level, once they really devote their time to the areas of the game that need the most attention, they’re going to be dynamite next year,” Larrañaga said.
But through all the bright lights, Walker wants them to remember one thing.
“Take the moment in and be present and just have as much fun as possible. Because this time won’t come to everybody, and this opportunity doesn’t come to everybody and this time [doesn’t] last forever.”
As Poplar and Joseph danced alongside their head coach after that Sweet 16 game, all they could do was live in the moment.