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Canes Hoops: Non-Conference Recap

It Was Good, But It Could Have Been Better

NCAA Basketball: La Salle at Miami (FL) Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Good, but could have been better. That pretty well summarizes Miami’s Men’s Basketball non-conference results as the ‘Canes march into the new year and their conference schedule.

Rankings and Ratings

After 12 games, the ‘Canes are 10-2 (1-0, ACC) and have a:

The low Net Ranking is concerning because 52 is squarely in bubble territory, which is territory a defending Final Four team never wants to find itself. Miami played several quality teams to start the year, but none of Miami’s opponents are receiving much love in the rankings:

  • (L) Kentucky (10-2) - No. 22 in Net Ranking (No. 6 in AP Poll)
  • (L) Colorado (11-2) - No. 30 in Net Ranking (RV in AP Poll)
  • (W) UCF (9-3) - No. 69 in Net Ranking
  • (W) Kansas St. (9-3) - No. 88 in Net Ranking
  • (W) Georgia (10-3) - No. 101 in Net Ranking
  • (W) Notre Dame (6-7) - No. 186 Net Ranking
  • (W) La Salle (8-4) - No. 206 in Net Ranking

Each of these teams should see their Net Rankings improve greatly as they enter their conference schedules - even La Salle, who plays in a likely multi-bid Atlantic 10 conference. These are the teams Hurricanes fans should be rooting for as they enter conference play.

The Hurricanes should also benefit from ACC play here on out. That begins tonight with an opportunity to hand Clemson their second loss of the season. The Tigers have a No. 8 Net Ranking and are also 16th in the AP Poll. Including Clemson, eleven ACC teams currently have a top 100 Net Ranking: North Carolina (20); Duke (21); Pittsburgh (41); Virginia (54); Virginia Tech (62); Wake Forest (64); NC State (68); Boston College (75); and Syracuse (78). That’s a lot of Quad 1 and 2 games still to be played on the schedule.

All said, Joe Lunardi of ESPN currently projects Miami as a 9 seed. Depending on Miami’s ability to avoid bad losses, a .500 conference record probably gets Miami a tournament invite as a low (9-11) seed. A winning conference record will undoubtedly improve that seed.

Player Performances

Here’s a quick rundown of Miami’s statistical leaders:

Points Per Game

  1. Norchad Omier, 17.6 ppg
  2. Wooga Poplar, 16.2 ppg
  3. Matthew Cleveland, 14.9 ppg
  4. Nijel Pack, 12.6 ppg
  5. Bensley Joseph, 8.8 ppg

Assists Per Game

  1. Nijel Pack, 4.2 apg
  2. Bensley Joseph, 4.0 apg
  3. Wooga Poplar, 2.2 apg
  4. Matthew Cleveland, 1.8 apg
  5. Kyshawn George, 1.8 apg

Rebounds Per Game

  1. Norchad Omier, 9.8 rpg
  2. Matthew Cleveland, 5.4 rpg
  3. Wooga Poplar, 5.2 rpg
  4. AJ Casey, 3.3 rpg
  5. Bensley Joseph, 2.8 rpg

The Starters

After flirting with the NBA, Omier returned and, thus far, Baby Food has been the heart and soul of this team. In an interview on the Dan LeBatard Show last month (interview starts at 43:30), Coach L explained that the feedback NBA scouts gave Omier was that he needed to “develop his three point shot and his ball handling.” Sure enough, Coach is letting Omier attempt 2.5 threes per game (way up from 0.6 last season) but Omier’s increased ball handling has increased his turnovers to 3.5 times per game (up from 2.7 last season). I admire a coach who allows players to showcases themselves to the league, but let’s not forget that Omier’s post play and defense continues to be the backbone of his game.

Nijel Pack’s dead-eye shooting is well known, but Pack returned for another season like Omier to improve other aspects of his game for the NBA. Defense and passing are the two areas he has to work on if he wants to be the next Steph Curry. With respect to passing, Pack has settled in as Miami’s chief facilitator and his assists per game are up to 4.2 compared to 2.3 last year. His defense still needs some work as Pack can struggle with larger opponents and he sometimes gets lost in the paint on a tough rotation. But boy he sure can toss up a nice lob.

Wooga Poplar is arguably the team’s MVP this season, and he’s undoubtedly Miami’s best NBA draft prospect. For those that watched the Kentucky debacle, Poplar single-handedly kept the Hurricanes competitive for long stretches. His athleticism is unmatched on the team and he’s stepped up his aggressiveness and scoring in the absence of now professional basketball player Isaiah Wong. When Miami needs a clutch bucket, it’s usually Wooga’s number that gets called.

Matthew Cleveland was the big offseason addition and he’s met all expectations in playing Jordan Miller’s role from last year’s run. Cleveland has been the team’s second leading rebounder and the ‘Canes are at their best when he’s initiating the fast break off a turnover or rebound.

The fifth starter, Bensley Joseph, joined the starting lineup after being the ‘Canes sixth man off the bench last season. Joseph is second on the team in assists and, despite averaging the fewest points per game among the starters, is a reliable scorer when opportunities present themselves.

The Bench

Freshman Kyshawn George (G) leads the bench with 16.8 minutes per game and 5.5 ppg. George also got the start in Pack’s two game absence these past few weeks. George, Christian Watson (G), AJ Casey (F), and Michael Nwoko (C) comprise the rotation players off the bench. Jakai Robinson (G), who some thought might earn more minutes this year, has sparingly appeared this season.

George, a three-star recruit from Switzerland, has been a pleasant surprise, especially on defense with his long wingspan. AJ Casey has also really stepped up his game. I remember Casey snatching an errant, mid-court pass against Notre Dame and gliding the length of the floor for an uncontested finish. It was a high IQ play that demonstrated his sophomore season development. Nwoko, another freshman, has also shown us impressive athleticism at times, but skills wise he’s the rawest of the rotation players.

3 Keys for Improvement

1. Rebounding, rebounding, rebounding. Miami is a small, quick, and athletic team that is at its best when its running the floor off a turnover, block, or rebound. In fact, Miami is currently ranked 40th in averaging 14.92 fastbreak points per game. But opponents’ offensive rebounding has been a wet blanket at times for Miami. Part of the problem is the positioning of players as the enemy’s shots go up. Miami’s guard heavy lineup tends to over commit to running the floor before the rebound is secured, often leaving only Omier and perhaps Cleveland or Wooga to battle for the board. Perhaps the Canes need to commit more bodies to the boards, or perhaps the Canes need to consider getting someone like AJ Casey more rotation time. One way or another, Miami needs to do a better job keeping opponents off the glass.

2. The Bench needs to step up. Miami ranks a woeful 323rd in the nation with 14.83 bench points per game. That’s down from 15.2 bench points per game last year, and last year’s squad had a much tighter bench - Bensley was the sixth man (19mpg) and only Harlond Beverly (12mpg) and Anthony Walker (10mpg) were in the rotation by the postseason. This season Coach L is going deeper into the bench with George (17mpg), Watson (14mpg), Casey (12mpg), and Nwoko (9mpg) in the rotation, but this younger and less experienced group is getting less production than last year’s bench. Defensive breakdowns are also more noticeable when two or more of Miami’s starting five is missing. Miami needs more from its bench. Hopefully the recent blowout wins against North Florida and Stonehill were helpful so that this group could get more court time.

3. Have Fun. No seriously, have fun. Winning is fun, but it’s not just about winning. It’s about style and attitude. Coach L teams are generally playing their best when Coach is dancing, there’s alley oops, and fast breaks, and floor slapping. The Colorado and Kentucky games were not fun. Nowhere to be seen was the fast and loose squad that comfortably won the Baha Mar championship. At times the ‘Canes have looked surprisingly tight and reserved for a team that went to the Final Four last year. Even in some of their wins - like the hole they dug themselves against FIU, or the runs that allowed La Salle to crawl back into their game - Miami shut down for long stretches. Keep it fast, keep it loose, and Miami will keep winning.