‘It’s Going to be a Really Close Game": CaneSport Editor Previews Kentucky vs. Miami

On3 imageby:Jacob Polacheck11/27/23

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After moving up to No. 12 in the latest AP Poll, Kentucky Basketball has its eyes on cracking the Top 10. And the Cats have a great shot to do that with a win on Tuesday vs. No. 8 Miami at Rupp Arena in the ACC/SEC Challenge. 

In preparation for Tuesday’s contest, KSR+ sat down with Matt Shodell, the managing editor of CaneSport to preview the Hurricanes. 

“I don’t think it’s going to be a problem, size-wise, for this Miami team,” Shodell told KSR+. “Usually, Miami is going to be out-sized by other teams. I think this is just a case of who’s hitting their shots, and who’s playing more sound, fundamental basketball. It’s going to be a really close game.” 

Wooga Poplar Emerging as Go-To Scorer

Miami lost two players to the NBA after last season in Isaiah Wong and Jordan Miller, who were both second-round picks. Wong and Miller combined to average 31.5 points per game, en route to a 29-8 record and a Final Four run in the NCAA Tournament. 

With those two gone, the main question was who would become Miami’s go-to scorer? Turns out the answer was junior guard Wooga Poplar. Through Miami’s first five games of the season, Poplar leads the team in scorer with 18 points per game on 50.9 percent shooting from the field. 

“Last year, Isaiah Wong was the guy. If he had the ball, he could get to the basket no matter what,” Shodell said. “There’s really nobody on this team for Miami this year that can do what he did, but Wooga Poplar’s outside shooting is so good and his pull-up jump shot is so good that he’s now leading the team with 18 points a game. Without him, I’m not sure Miami even starts this year 5-0.” 

(photo courtesy of Miami Athletics)

A Couple of Other Scorers Might Cause Problems

Then there’s Matthew Cleveland, a transfer from Florida State, who is averaging 16.8 points per game on 62.7 percent shooting from the field. 

“This is more of a pure, really, really good outside shooting team,” Shodell said. They’ll just hit jumper after jumper if you leave them open. They’ll hit three-pointer after three-pointer if you leave them open.”

Miami is even letting its center Norchad Omier shoot from beyond the arc, going 3-for-10 from three-point range in the Hurricanes’ first five games. 

“All five of these guys can shoot, can hit threes. If Kentucky is smart, maybe they’ll leave Omier open a bit because he’s probably the guy you want shooting from outside,” Shodell said. “All five starters can hit their shots.”

With the shooting ability of Miami and the fast-paced offense of Kentucky, Tuesday night should be a high-scoring affair. 

Jim Larranaga said today – and I don’t think he’s wrong – that the first team to 80 points will win this game,” Shodell said. “This Miami team and Kentucky are very similar. Both are very up-tempo, get out fast in transition, and run the court.” 

Miami ‘Plays as a Team and Shares the Ball’

Miami does a lot of things right, including the shooting we mentioned earlier, but there are a couple of things that can be considered its key strengths. 

“What they do best is play as a team and share the ball,” Shodell said.

This on-court chemistry often helps the team’s “ability as pure shooters” by resulting in high-percentage shots from the field. 

“They will not take bad shots, they will move the ball, and they run a very good motion offense that will get guys shots,” Shodell said. 

Then there might be some looks Kentucky doesn’t expect from this Miami team. 

“Jim Larranaga also hinted today that the brilliance of this system that he runs is that he will surprise you,” Shodell said. “He will do different things. He doesn’t have just one thing that he’ll keep doing over and over again. If something’s not working, he’s going to change things up.” 

Miami Hurricanes basketball
ALBANY, NY – MARCH 19: Norchad Omier #15 of the Miami Hurricanes reacts after the Miami Hurricanes defeat the Indiana Hoosiers during the second round of the 2023 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament held at MVP Arena on March 19, 2023 in Albany, New York. (Photo by C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

How Will Miami Use Norchad Omier?

That could come in the form of how Miami chooses to use Norchad Omier, who is expected to match up with Kentucky’s defacto center Tre Mitchell, who at 6-foot-9 is filling in at the five while the three seven-footers work to get back on the court. 

“There could be some things that maybe Kentucky is not expecting because this is also an athletic enough team to do a lot of different things, offensively and defensively,” Shodell said. “[Larranaga] likes to put in a scramble defense. They haven’t really shown it here, but it can cause a lot of problems for teams that maybe early in the year haven’t prepared for press defenses and things like that.” 

Shodell expects Larranaga to do everything he can to come away with a victory at Rupp Arena. 

“My guess is that Larranaga is going to throw everything that he’s accumulated in his decades of coaching to try and win this game and beat Kentucky,” Shodell said. 

Yet, this Miami team still has a question mark. And it’s one similar to Kentucky: defense and rebounding.

“Just look at the stats. These are two very similar teams,” Shodell said. 

A Battle in the Frontcourt

Once again, Kentucky likely enters Tuesday’s matchup without its three footers in Aaron Bradshaw, Zvonimir Ivisic, and Ugonna Onyenso. Kentucky may be short-handed in the frontcourt, but Miami doesn’t have much depth at that position either.

“It’s not a bad matchup for Miami at all,” Shodell said. “It’s similar to similar. You can consider Matthew Cleveland a swing forward, a guard-forward. They’re basically playing four guards and a center. If they’re playing a team that’s consistently getting the ball inside and scoring, that’s going to cause all sorts of problems for them.” 

Miami’s only inside player who gets consistent minutes is Norchad Omier, a junior forward who stands at 6-foot-7.

“Norchad is really good defensively at staying out of foul trouble, but there are some teams where he just gets into foul trouble,” Shodell said. “An athletic seven-footer would cause him to get into foul trouble.” 

Without an athletic seven-footer like Bradshaw to fill the paint, Kentucky likely won’t have the weapons to test Miami’s size. 

What Does Miami Have to Do to Win?

In order for Miami to steal a win on the road against Kentucky, the Hurricanes are going to need scoring from several players.

“They’re going to need probably three scorers. I’m not saying they need five guys in double-figures, but they need three guys hitting their shots,” Shodell said. “Nijel Pack has been hot and cold. He loves to shoot long threes and take tons of three-pointers. If he’s hot, that’s going to be a big problem for Kentucky.” 

While Shodell expects Poplar to be able to score the ball well, outside of him, there are several question marks. 

“Omier is going to be inside, but he’s more of a 10 to 15 point guy,” Shodell said. “He’s not going to light it up. You really need Matthew Cleveland or Nijel Pack, one of those two guys. If they’re both off, Miami is going to have a lot of problems. If they can have Poplar, Omier, and either Cleveland or Pack hitting their shots and be hot, then that’s going to be the key to beating a team like Kentucky.” 

Miami Not Fazed by the Bright Lights

One thing Shodell doesn’t expect? For this Miami team to be intimidated by the bright lights of Rupp Arena. 

“It’s a scrappy bunch that likes to have fun,” he said. “As a matter of fact, they tend to enjoy playing on the road a little more than they like playing at home. They sort of like having everyone hate them. I don’t know why. If Canes players had a message for Kentucky fans, it would be, give us your best shot.” 

Heading into last season’s Final Four run, Shodell said the Hurricanes loved being doubted by fans and media. That’s a sentiment that has stuck around in 2023-24. 

“This chip on their shoulder, us against the world mentality that Miami had in football has sort of translated over to the basketball team,” he said. 

As for Tuesday’s game, Shodell expects an exciting one. 

“It’s going to be a really fun game to watch for every single fan in the country,” he said. “This is the kind of game fans love to watch. This is going to be a high-scoring, back-and-forth game. A 10-point lead could be evaporated in two minutes type of game.” 

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