College Basketball Final Four Dark Horse Contenders: Miami to Take Next Step?

College Basketball Final Four Dark Horse Contenders: Miami to Take Next Step? article feature image

Photo by Samuel Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images. Pictured: Isaiah Wong (Miami)

In my 2022 NCAA tournament bracket, I picked the Miami Hurricanes to make a sleeper run to the Elite Eight. Sure enough, the No. 10-seeded Canes flexed their muscles, defeating USC, Auburn and Iowa State before getting dispatched by Kansas.

This season, I'm on the Hurricanes' train again, as I'm targeting them to potentially make it even further in the Big Dance.

And by further, I mean a trip to Houston for the Final Four.

When looking for a dark horse Final Four contender, I need three questions answered before taking a team in the futures market.

  • Does this team have a star player who can carry it in March?
  • Does this team have strong play in its backcourt?
  • Does this team have an elite, experienced head coach?

Advanced analytics and other components come into play when making futures selections — and our day-to-day bets in general — but I'm big into the eye test. Watching games and getting a feel for teams is incredibly important to how I formulate my opinions, and it's no different with this Canes team.

So, let's dive deeper into this ACC squad in this year's first edition of "College Basketball Final Four Dark Horse Contenders."

The World of Isaiah Wong

Does this team have a star player who can carry it in March?

The answer is obviously a yes for Miami. Wong ranks sixth in scoring in the ACC (17.2 PPG), showing an elite ability to take over a game and score at will when he wants to.

The guard has also become much better as a passer this season (4.5 APG compared to 2.0 APG in '22), has improved his efficiency (46.7 FG%, 37.7 3P%) and is becoming an even more opportunistic defender (1.8 SPG, 4th in ACC).

But most importantly, Wong has been through the wringer. The junior was a straight-up beast in the opening two rounds of the Big Dance last year, averaging 21.5 points.

He slumped a bit against Iowa State in the Sweet 16 and didn't play up to par against Kansas, but those are two experiences that will likely leave a sour taste in his mouth and serve as motivation for the veteran.

I always think back to the UConn teams of old that were led by Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier. I'm not saying Wong is even in the same ballpark as those two, but if you have a star, a deep run in March is easier to navigate.

Canes' Modern Style of Basketball

Does this team have strong play in its backcourt?

Miami was more than just Wong last year. Kameron McGusty was its leading scorer. Charlie Moore was playing with his fourth program in five years. And Sam Waardenburg was dangerous as a stretch big.

While all three of those players are gone, Miami is still more than just Wong in 2022-23. The addition of Nigel Pack from Kansas State in the backcourt will specifically take pressure off the star guard.

Pack hasn't exactly lived up to expectations in Coral Gables yet, but the upside is there after he averaged nearly 18 points per game with the Wildcats last season. He's a physical, attacking guard who's a great complement to Wong's similar off-the-bounce style of play.

While the guard play is strong, what makes Miami even more dangerous than just its backcourt is its modern style of basketball. The Canes don't have great size, so they counter that by playing small-ball, 4- or 5-out hoops.

That worked to perfection with Waardenburg last year — especially in the NCAA Tournament — and this season, they replaced him with Arkansas State transfer Norchad Omier.

Omier is nearly averaging a double-double (13.5 PPG, 9.8 RPG), and while he doesn't shoot 3s like Waardenburg, Jordan Miller can play the role of an inside-out wing/"big" at 6-foot-7. In his increased role, Miller is averaging nearly 15 points and six rebounds while shooting 33.3% from 3.

This brand of basketball makes positions essentially meaningless. With the strength of the big man coming back in full force this year in college hoops, that makes Miami even more difficult to prepare for, especially in a tournament format.

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The Veteran Jim Larranaga

Does this team have an elite, experienced head coach?

Say what you want about Jim Larranaga's success (or lack thereof) at Miami before last year, but there's no denying the results the Hurricanes posted in 2021-22.

The Canes won at Duke, pummeled North Carolina at home, finished fourth in the ACC and reached the Elite Eight.

As I mentioned above, Larranaga has impressively used small-ball, 4- or 5-out lineups to his advantage. While that scheme is becoming more and more common in basketball nowadays, there are still some college coaches who haven't fully embraced the change.

Larranaga is no stranger to the Final Four, too, as he led George Mason's run back in 2006. Obviously, that was 17 years ago, and the Patriots were a deep Cinderella team rather than a squad ranked No. 14 in the country. But the point remains the same: I feel comfortable with Larranaga in charge.

Final Four Dark Horse Contender Pick

Every team in college basketball is going to show its cracks, including Miami.

The Canes don't have great size, as 6-foot-9 Anthony Walker is the tallest player playing somewhat consistent minutes (nine per game). That can impact them against bigger teams that are capable of slowing the pace down.

But it also works both ways.

If Miami is able to speed up the pace, force turnovers and pull opposing bigs away from the basket, it will grab a mismatch advantage and even potentially force those big men to the bench if they can't keep up.

Also, Miami is 103rd in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (via KenPom). That's obviously not a positive, but this narrative was the same for the Canes last year: not great at rebounding and a shaky defense.

Look how that turned out.

And it's not like the Hurricanes don't force turnovers defensively. They're third in the ACC in steals per game, and they want to create transition opportunities to utilize their speed and quickness.

Matchups will be key for Miami in the NCAA tournament — maybe more so than they are for other teams — but I feel comfortable taking it at +2200 (FanDuel) to make the Final Four.

Final Four Dark Horse Pick: Miami (+2200)

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Daniel Preciado
May 24, 2024 UTC