Miami vs. UConn: 3 keys and a prediction for Final Four showdown
Miami will play in the Final Four for the first time on Saturday when the Hurricanes take on UConn in the nightcap semifinal in Houston (8:49 pm, ET, tip, CBS).
Here’s all you need to know about the game, along with 3 questions that will define the matchup.
How Miami got here
While the Hurricanes made their first Final Four as a 5 seed, winning the Midwest Region, nothing about how they got here is a fluke. The Hurricanes faced the toughest path of any team in the Final Four, playing a “straight seed line” draw with wins over 12 seed Drake, 4 seed Indiana, 1 seed Houston, and 2 seed Texas to advance. Every other team in the Final Four played at least 2 games against teams that had upset better seeds to advance to their matchup. Miami received no such bracket luck but won anyway.
There is a reason for that. Miami was the best team in the ACC all season, winning a share of the regular-season crown thanks to a sensational offense that features more guards than Everglades Correctional. When Saturday Road dubbed the Hurricanes “Final Four good” in early February, we received some email eye rolls and odd glances, but the reality was this Hurricanes team was not only as prolific offensively as last season’s Elite 8 group, it was more balanced, thanks to Norchad Omier’s bulk, defense, and rebounding presence underneath.
The Hurricanes came together late in the year, winning 13 of their last 15 games to advance to the program’s first Final Four. That stretch of extended winning makes the Hurricanes just as hot coming into this game as the UConn team they’ll face, led by Danny Hurley.
How UConn got here
Hurley’s impressive job at UConn this year makes it easy to forget that when he was hired, not everyone in Husky Nation was convinced. Hurley had a great last name, but he was hovering just over .500 as a college coach. He was high energy and charismatic, but where were the results? Those questions were amplified when Hurley’s first UConn squad struggled and finished under .500. It’s amazing what happens when you have patience.
A year after being ushered out of the NCAA Tournament in the first round by a defensively stout but offensively limited New Mexico State, the Huskies kept key pieces of the roster together, mixed in a portal player or two, and advanced to the Final Four for the 6th time. As most hoops heads know, when UConn gets to the Final Four, they usually win, as the 4 national championship banners hanging at Gampel Pavilion demonstrate.
Can the Huskies hang a 5th? After a brutal month where UConn lost 6 times in 8 league games, the Huskies have, like Miami, peeled off 13 wins in 15 tries. They rolled through the West Region and embarrassed fellow national power Gonzaga in the Elite 8, crushing the Zags 82-54 in one of the most impressive NCAA Tournament victories this century. The Hurricanes will be a different type of challenge, but there’s a reason that Connecticut is a favorite in Vegas.
3 defining matchups
1. Can Miami compete on the offensive glass?
Both UConn (38.5%) and Miami (31.7%) clean up a large amount of their misses on the offensive glass. The Huskies rank 2nd in that category all season, and on paper, they are the best rebounding team in the Final Four.
The Hurricanes’ ability to win battles on the offensive glass is more surprising, given they essentially start 3 guards, a wing (Jordan Miller), and an undersized center. Despite their lack of size, Miami’s guards are willing rebounders and Omier is among the nation’s best individual offensive rebounders, ranking 13th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage, per KenPom.
Both teams used critical offensive rebounding performances in the first round to avoid scares, as UConn grabbed 11 offensive rebounds in the second half against Iona to turn a halftime deficit into a rout, and Miami used 9 offensive rebounds and 12 second-chance points to fend off Drake. Both teams have averaged 10 offensive rebounds a game in the NCAA Tournament.
Can Omier continue to produce among the UConn trees? The Hurricanes must get a fair share of second-chance possessions Saturday night to win. They can’t rely on hot shooting alone.
2. The best individual matchup in the Final Four: Isaiah Wong vs. Jordan Hawkins
NBA scouts are salivating over the matchup between these star guards.
Hawkins, just a sophomore, won West Region Most Outstanding Player honors, averaging 17.5 points per game and connecting on over 50% of his looks from deep. The Huskies also do an exceptional job running him off screens and he’s so lengthy he elevates over help or man defenders with ease.
Jordan Hawkins helps propel UConn to the Final Four with an extraordinary display of shot-making running off screens, ducking behind handoffs, sidestep 3s and transition spot-ups. 6/10 for 3 and 20 points. Quickest release in America? pic.twitter.com/WTAfMb4cR4
— Jonathan Givony (@DraftExpress) March 26, 2023
Hurley’s offense has changed in the past 2 years, integrating more European concepts and stagger screening, all tailor-made for Hawkins and the UConn guards, who shoot 3s on 45% of UConn’s possessions and make them at a terrific 36.3% clip, per KenPom.
Turnout Stagger Twist pic.twitter.com/67ZYD2nw1R
— Eric Fawcett (@EricFawcett_) March 24, 2023
The Huskies’ combination of great offensive scheme and great shooters might seem like a huge problem on paper for Miami, but the truth is the Hurricanes guard well away from the basket. Isaiah Wong grades out as a “Very Good” on-ball defender, per Synergy, and he’s even better as a 3-point defender, giving up just 25.2% of 3s taken against him this year.
Wong, the ACC Player of the Year, doesn’t require the space that Hawkins does to score, and is less reliant on screens, though Jim Larrañaga is of course more than happy to free his scorers up running gorgeous stuff. The main thing with Wong is he’s just an elite shotmaker, including tough, guarded shots.
Isaiah Wong today:
Canes move to the Sweet 16 🔥 pic.twitter.com/LyZpEdm1jO
— Buhownz (@Demar305) March 20, 2023
A scorer who can finish through contact, score in the midrange, and heat up from outside, Wong isn’t Miami’s best player (despite the ACC Player of the Year moniker). But he’s the one that will challenge UConn’s defense the most on Saturday night.
3. The Jordan Miller mismatch
If you entered March Madness having never heard of Miami senior Jordan Miller, you probably know all about him by now.
The senior wing was flawless against Texas: 27 points, 7-for-7 FG, 13-for-13 FT, to lift the Hurricanes to the Final Four. Miller, who was my No. 2 pick for ACC Player of the Year (I voted for Wake Forest’s star guard, Tyree Appleby, who won the Media Award while Wong won the Coaches’), is the most versatile player in the Final Four since Florida’s Corey Brewer, the 2007 NCAA Tournament MVP. Like Brewer, Miller has speed, length, and size that makes him terribly difficult to guard, but if you stick your best guy on him, he’s such a terrific passer he will make you pay by finding one of Miami’s elite open shooters like Nijel Pack or Booga Poplar.
How will Hurley defend Miller? If he sticks his best defender, Andre Jackson Jr. on him, it could create massive problems for UConn freshman Alex Karaban, who struggles with smaller, quicker guards. Another option is to go smaller, which might be what Miami wants UConn to do. But if he puts Karaban on him, Miller may just do the scoring himself, because he’s faster than Karaban and his first burst will spell trouble for the UConn youngster.
Still, I’d lean toward the latter strategy, and dare Miller to beat Karaban consistently and replicate his efficiency in the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 Saturday night with Adama Sanogo and Donovan Clingan protecting the UConn rim. Do that, and trust Andre Jackson Jr. to handle one of the Miami star guards- Pack or Wong — and UConn may solve the puzzle Jordan Miller has presented teams all season.
Prediction: UConn 77, Miami 74
The Hurricanes won’t be intimidated. They led eventual national champion Kansas at halftime in last year’s Elite 8 and wore that chip on their shoulder all season. They are old, smart, don’t turn the ball over or beat themselves, and they run sensational offense.
But how do you pick against a UConn team that has throttled people for 2 weeks? The Huskies are averaging 22.5 points per game in win margin, making for one of the more enjoyable ongoing Twitter jokes in the universe:
Dan Hurley has once again failed to win a close game.
— No Escalators (@NoEscalators) March 26, 2023
Hurley’s UConn will get a close game Saturday night. They will also win it.