With that being said, let’s dive into the matchups and predict an outcome.
The Battle of 24’s
My number when I hooped was 24. It’s the Underwood Family Number as LITERALLY EVERYONE in my family wore that number, no matter the sport they played. So, of course, I’m going to focus on the player wearing 24 in this game, and they happen to be pivotal players for both Miami and UConn.
First for UConn, their #24 is Jordan Hawkins. A dynamic, sharpshooting 6’5” wing, Hawkins plays like the descendent of former UConn (and Detroit Pistons Champion) star Richard “Rip” Hamilton. Hawkins might be the best conditioned player in the country, and shows that off by running around off the ball all game long. He averages 18.5 points per game and shoots 38.5% from 3, so Hawkins can ignite a run for UConn at any time. He’s the straw that stirs the drink for the Huskies. He’s the star that makes the offense, and team, go. How he performs against Miami will be key to UConn’s continued success.
For their part, Miami has a number of options to throw at Hawkins as primary defender. 6’5” wing Wooga Poplar will probably draw this assignment through most of the game, as he’s been tasked with defending similar players all season long. But, Isaiah Wong, Harlond Beverly, and Jordan Miller should all also see time matched up on Hawkins throughout the game.
For Miami, their #24 is Nijel Pack. A sharpshooting guard with nearly unlimited range, Pack has settled in after a rocky first 1/3rd of the season to showcase his elite shooting ability. He doesn’t score as much as Hawkins at only 13.8 ppg, but Pack has the ability to heat up like a supernova and take games over with a barrage of deep 3’s. Pack went nuclear against Virigina Tech in February, scoring 17 points in 5 minutes to help propel Miami to victory.
Unlike Hawkins, who mainly does his damage by navigating screens and moving off the ball, Pack scores more as a ballhandler/offensive initiator. He’ll initiate the offense and find his own shot, or get it in the flow of the offense. He’s most dangerous when rejecting a ball screen and stepping back to his left for a shot. Classic right handed shooter go-to move, and Pack is deadly when doing it.
Both Hawkins and Pack are dangerous in transition, finding space to shoot 3’s. Lose them in transition and it’s an open look for the best shooter on each team. Or close out too hard, and they’ll hit you with a pump fake, relocate after the defender flies by, then shoot the open 3. It’s essential to stay connected to both players at any time across half court, and the ability to do so, or not, will factor heavily into tonight’s game.
Both Hawkins and Pack will have to deliver their share of offense for their team, and the one who is most efficiently able to do so will have a big hand in how this game plays out. It’s noteworthy that Hawkins missed Friday’s shoot-around in Houston with an illness and is questionable for tonight’s game. If he’s unable to play, that’s a major, major negative for the Huskies. But, I’m going to assume he’s going to gut it out and play .
Sanogo vs Omier
This is a clash of titans if ever we’ve seen one. UConn star Adama Sanogo is a big, physical post presence for the Huskies. Averaging 17.1 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, the 6’9” 240lb Mali native is a monster on both ends of the floor.
Miami’s Norchad Omier is the interior presence for the Canes. The 6’7” 248lb Omier is averaging 13.1 points and 10.1 rebounds on the year. He’s got a 6’11” wingspan and plays bigger than his 6’7” stature, but his well-noted strength will be put to the test against Sanogo (and others) in tonight’s semi-final.
Both players are most effective doing their work in the paint, and their battle throughout this game will be a key storyline to watch. UConn runs more plays for Sanogo to post up or work Hi-Low than Miami does for Omier, so Omier’s positioning on defense and ability to play strong defense but stay out of foul trouble — something that has plagued him this season — will be essential.
Miami has transitioned to a 5-out offense, with Omier starting most sets at the free throw line on the low side, or at the 3pt line on the high side. It will be interesting to see what UConn does with Sanogo on defense in these situations (which is the entire game, really). Sure, he’ll man up when Omier starts from the FT line, but what about when the 5-out set starts with Omier above the 3pt line. UConn will have to be intentional about this, because if Sanogo plays drop coverage, Miami’s guards could feast with open looks. But, if hedges hard or switches, Miami could feast on that scenario, just as they’ve done repeatedly throughout this year’s tournament run.
Both Sanogo and Omier will need to play to their highest level, and each will need to stay out of foul trouble. This is more important for Omier, however, as he’s pretty much the only big that plays for Miami, whereas UConn has other players who can step into the role Sanogo plays for the Huskies.
UConn’s size vs Miami’s speed
Look. UConn has a clear height advantage over Miami. Not only is Adama Sanogo 6’9”, but fellow starters Alex Karaban and Andre Jackson Jr. both stand 6’8” and 6’7”. And I haven’t even mentioned their biggest player: freshman C Donovan Clingan, a 7’2” monster who’s quicker than you think, and impacts games at an elite level in limited minutes.
Clingan’s per 40 stats this season: 17.6 rebounds, 5.6 blocks. If you look at the raw stats, he’s at 7.1 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks in just 13 minutes a game. Clingan’s mere presence changes things, because he’s 7 inches taller than Miami’s tallest regular player, rebounds like a vacuum, and alters shots at the rim by just standing there.
Conversely, Miami’s tallest starters are 6’7” Jordan Miller and Norchad Omier, and the tallest player who plays meaningful minutes (though sparingly) is 6’9” AJ Casey, a mobile and finesse 4 more than a bulky interior banger.
With that disparity in size — UConn built more traditionally and Miami built like a mid-major team — the Canes have to play fast on both ends to use their athleticism and speed as an advantage. This has been the recipe all season, and we can look back to the last 3 rounds against Indiana, Houston, and Texas to see how this style of play can, and will, be successful.
The main thing here that I mentioned in the 2nd section is Omier staying out of foul trouble. Other players who would enter the game, Anthony Walker and AJ Casey, have similar height but lack bulk, and Miami’s defense is much, MUCH worse when either of them are on the floor instead of Omier. This tweet from March 13th illustrates this point (though, obviously, the actual numbers are slightly different now with more games in the sample):
Miami is terrible without Norchad Omier, particularly on defense pic.twitter.com/teT56MPmj7— WilliamEzekowitz (@wezekowitz) March 13, 2023
Miami can win by being themselves and playing small. The roster necessitates this, and the team has gotten really good at this. But this only works with Omier on the floor, especially on the defensive end.
ACC Player of the Year
I’ve gotten this far in my preview and haven’t mentioned the ACC Player of the Year: Miami guard Isaiah Wong. While I made the connection of players wearing the 24 jersey up top, the player whose offense will need to match Hawkins’ for Miami to win is Wong, the unquestioned offensive leader of this team.
The 6’3” Wong — who chose Miami over UConn as a HS recruit — is averaging 16.2 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 3.1 assists on the year. He had 5 points in the game against Drake in the opening round, but bounced back with 27 against Indiana, 20 against Houston, and 14 against Texas in a supporting role. Wong is an incredible tough-shot maker, and will need to showcase that tonight against a UConn team that will be keyed up to stop him.
While I noted that Miami doesn’t call many plays for Omier on offense (though this does happen from time to time), Coach L will not only call plays for Wong, he’ll spam them time and time and time again if they’re working. And it makes sense: he’s the best player, the best offensive player, and his shotmaking opens up opportunities for him to be a facilitator for others.
Long story short: Miami will need Wong to play like the ACC Player of the Year in this, the biggest game of the year, to move on to Monday’s Championship Game.
Which supporting players step into starring roles?
Both Miami and UConn have relied on their stars — Jordan Hawkins and Adama Sanogo for UConn and Nijel Pack, Isaiah Wong, and Norchad Omier for Miami — along their way to the Final 4. But, both teams will need supporting players to make big plays to advance to Monday night’s Championship Game.
For UConn, Andre Jackson Jr. has unlocked his playmaking and scoring after deciding not to settle for jumpers the opposition will give him (and hope he takes) and turned into a slashing, attacking dynamo. Additionally, Alex Karaban has shown what a stretch 4 can do, knocking down open shots with ease. Tristen Newton has been steady at point guard, but his impact has been as a facilitator and defensive stalwart more than scoring.
For Miami, the conversation starts with 6’7” wing Jordan Miller. He had the 2nd perfect game on 20 combined FG/FT attempts in NCAA tournament history in the Elite 8 win over Texas, joining Christian Laettner on this list.
Over the last 25 seasons, there have been 134,377 instances of a Division I player taking at least 20 total shots (FG or FT) in a game, NCAA Tournament or otherwise.— OptaSTATS (@OptaSTATS) March 27, 2023
Jordan Miller of @CanesHoops is the only one of those to make every single one. pic.twitter.com/UeQMB7PvgT
Though he’s still growing into the player he’ll eventually be, wing Wooga Poplar has shown he can step up when needed. While Miller was having his perfect night in the Elite 8 against Texas, Poplar quietly(?) put up a very solid 16 point, 6 rebound, 4 assist, 2 steal performance against the Longhorns. While others, including Miller, may initiate offense or have plays called for them, Poplar is pretty much a catch-and-shoot, or catch-and-go player at this point. But if his opportunities turn into 16-6-4-2 (or similar), that would be massive for the Canes.
Both Miami’s coach Jim Larrañaga and UConn’s coach Dan Hurley know what the other team does well. Both know the stars on the other side of the court. Obviously, you expect those players to play to their averages or better, but this game will come down to which team’s supporting players can step up and bring additional value, on both ends of the court, to support their team’s stars and neutralize the opposition.
DraftKings Sportsbook odds: UCONN -5.5, O/U 149
I’m gonna keep this short. I’ve supported this team all season long, and that’s not stopping now. We’re not accepting any new members on what has become the Canes’ bandwagon, but I’m no bandwagon fan. I’ve been here thru thick and thin. And I’m going to embrace the expectation and predict that this wild ride continues on to Monday night.
Miami covers and the over hits. Obviously, Miami needs to win to cover, and to get there, this game will need to be played in the 80s. Both of those things happen.
Miami 84 UConn 81