The Miami Hurricanes have made it to the Final Four for the first time in program history.
This is the magnum opus of Hurricanes head coach Jim Larranga’s coaching career. However, their ability to make it this far in the 2023 NCAA Tournament in no small part due to fifth-year senior Jordan Miller.
Miller scored 27 points on 7-7 shooting from the field and 13-13 shooting from the free-throw line in a historic performance. In the Hurricanes’ ability to muster a comeback victory against the Texas Longhorns, he was most important x-factor. Another important factor was the elevated play of senior guard Isaiah Wong, who came alive in the second half to finish the contest with 14 points and two steals.
However, when the Hurricanes face the UConn Huskies in the 2023 Final Four, it’s not Miller or Wong that will be the x-factor.
It’s going to be sophomore guard Wooga Poplar. Poplar finished Sunday’s contest against the Longhorns with 16 points, four assists, and two steals while shooting 5-6 from 3-point range.
Why Wooga Poplar is Miami basketball’s X-factor vs. UConn in the 2023 Final Four
People would never believe that Poplar didn’t start playing basketball until his sophomore year of high school if they just began watching him now.
After all, how many players just four or five years into learning how to play a sport at a high-level start having success at a high level? Other than players who are naturals that is, and that’s exactly what Poplar is.
Getting coached up by Hurricanes head coach Jim Larranaga on the defensive end, Poplar’s focus and discipline have lent themselves to his early success. In fact, it’s the defensive end where Poplar will be most needed against the Huskies, particularly off-ball.
UConn has two current NBA Draft prospects in their rotation in sharpshooting guard Jordan Hawkins and low-post scorer Adama Sanogo.
Hawkins, a 6-foot-5, 185-pound junior, should be the primary assignment for Poplar defensively.
Shooting 38.5 percent from 3-point range on 7.7 attempts per game, Hawkins gets his shot attempts up in a variety of ways. However, the player defending him will have their work cut out for them because of his movement off-ball, something reminiscent of former UConn guard Rip Hamilton.
Fortunately for Miami, Poplar is an ideal defender for Hawkins.
Firstly, they’re similarly sized, with Wooga standing at 6-foot-5 and 195 pounds. Although defense is rarely that simplistic, having a player that can match the length of an outside shooter of Hawkins’ caliber is useful for contesting shots. Especially a player in Hawkins that’s more lithe than he is explosive, meaning that Poplar’s biggest tools defensively aside from his physique will be his endurance and defensive awareness.
Secondly, Poplar is a high-level off-ball defender, routinely sticking to his defensive assignment like glue. This defensive skill will matter as much as his physical build or intangible traits.
On the offensive end, Poplar is averaging just 8.7 points per game while shooting 39.0 percent from 3-point range. Yet, as Poplar displayed in the Elite Eight, he’s more than capable of catching fire.
When the Hurricanes face the Huskies, Hawkins could find himself guarding any number of Miami’s perimeter talents. This could be Poplar, but it could also be Wong or junior guard Nijel Pack.
UConn prides itself on its perimeter defense, holding opponents to just 29.7 percent shooting from 3 this season. Furthermore, at least one of their perimeter players is bound to have a size advantage on Poplar, Wong, or Pack.
Wong is bound to get sizable defensive attention as the primary option for the Hurricanes. Meanwhile, Pack could be prioritized by the Huskies defensively because they’ll have a size advantage over him at 6-foot-0. Furthermore, he’s proven for three seasons that he’s a tough cover.
In that event, the third-best perimeter defender that UConn has in their starting lineup may be Poplar’s primary matchup. If so, Poplar could have plenty of opportunities to make the Huskies pay.
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