When the Miami Hurricanes’ Cinderella-esque run in the 2021 Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament ended inside the Greensboro Coliseum (Greensboro, N.C.), many across college basketball were still surprised.
The team’s rotation had grappled with multiple injuries, lost a handful of contests decided by five or fewer points, and yet still managed to advance to the quarterfinal round having won four of 19 conference matchups during the regular season.
Even with only six scholarship student-athletes healthy enough to push the eventual ACC champion Georgia Tech to the brink of elimination, another surprise arose — a handful of players decided to depart UM and enter the transfer portal.
“I look at college basketball now from a coach’s standpoint, it’s like a game of Poker where you reshuffle the deck after every season,” Hurricanes coach Jim Larrañaga said of the NCAA transfer portal that held over 1,500 players in May. “Players are kind of distributed throughout the country. The average number of players transferring per school is over five per team.”
And then two of the Hurricanes’ top three scorers in Isaiah Wong and Kameron McGusty decided to test NBA Draft waters, leaving Larrañaga and his coaching staff wondering who the program would look to for much of its scoring.
But nonetheless, both guards ultimately opted not to move forward in declaring for the 2021 NBA Draft. McGusty announced his return to Coral Gables on June 30 and Wong did the same one week later, bringing a collective sigh of relief to the school and its followers.
“I like where we are right now,” Larrañaga said. “Having Isaiah and Kam back, they both looked at the NBA route; they both learned an awful lot about the NBA process. But for them coming back, we have two double-figure scorers at the wings that I think you know, makes us a very talented backcourt.”
McGusty and Wong share that level of optimism, as both remain excited to embark on another season with Larrañaga in his 11th year at Miami having learned plenty about the next level.
“I’m super motivated, I can’t wait.” McGusty said. “I feel like just building off what we did in the ACC Tournament, I mean we had a walk-on playing 20 minutes a game and five other guys [available], and we still went in there and did what we had to do. We were the most energetic team, we were the loudest team in the locker room. I’m just excited to be able to build off what we did when we made that last run.”
“The way I saw this team coming in, I really liked that [guard] Charlie Moore is coming in, McGusty’s coming back, and we have [forward] Sam Waardenburg coming back,” Wong said. “I just wanted to be in an opportunity to win at the University of Miami, and that’s why I came back because I’d be coming back and just playing with all these great players and great personalities, and I really appreciate them.”
Wong, the Hurricanes’ leading scorer with over 17 points per game through 25 starts last year, was not invited to the annual NBA Draft Combine, despite engaging in workouts and interviews with NBA teams. The Piscataway, New Jersey native also said that he had not received firm interest from any of the 30 NBA teams and kept the possibility of returning to Miami in full consideration throughout the process.
“One of the things that the NBA coaches and scouts and general managers do is they actually sit down and evaluate your game and tell you the areas you need to focus on if you want to play in the NBA; ‘You must improve in this area,’” Larrañaga said. “College coaches can tell their players that and quite frankly they don’t listen all the time. They say, ‘Ah no, defense isn’t that important. As long as I score, everyone will be interested in me.’”
Miami finished towards the bottom of the conference when it came to scoring defense. Both Wong and McGusty hope to change that for not only the team’s success but for theirs, too.
“Definitely being able to defend four positions, one through four. That’s going to be a big thing for me,” McGusty said of the NBA scouts’ and executives’ collective insight. “I got a lot of good feedback; it was all positive. It wasn’t anything that you know, I felt like couldn’t be fixed or anything that I feel like that I’m not good at, honestly.”
And for Larrañaga and his staff, the tenured guards can help guide Miami towards better defensive results after hearing it from the best in the sport.
“What we’ve found is that when the NBA scouts start talking to them, they start talking about defense first,” Larrañaga said. “You can’t guard a great player, you can’t play in the NBA…If you look at a player like Bruce Brown, who had two terrific years with us, the reason he’s having so much success in the NBA is because he was a two-way player…The way he was able to succeed is he did a really good job and developed a reputation as a guy who can defend, and I think that was kind of the message that was delivered to Kam McGusty and Isaiah Wong.”
The two returning Hurricanes won’t be on their own for much of another season, however. The transfer portal may have sapped Miami this spring, but it’s also supported the program despite the flurry of transfers.
“The addition of Charlie Moore is going to be great for us,” Larrañaga said of Moore, who transferred to Miami in late April having also competed at California, Kansas, and DePaul in his collegiate career. “He’s a terrific player, he’s a great teammate, he’s a very good distributor of the basketball.”
Larrañaga additionally credited Moore’s ability to dominate in the open court, as the floor general paced DePaul with an average of 14.4 points per game and 67 total assists and is prepared for another fresh start in an ACC program.
“It’s been different circumstances everywhere I went,” Moore said of his experiences at the first three schools he attended. “With Cal, my coach left, I felt like I could get closer to home, help my dad. Kansas as well, circumstances with my dad and my mom happened once again, so I feel like everything’s been family oriented. I ended up at DePaul last year closer to home with my mom and dad. I was able to help them out a lot and I felt like things got better at home, and now I’m here at Miami.”
The team continues to recognize that staying on the floor and establishing momentum at the right time will be paramount.
“I mean, God forbid hopefully we stay healthy, and I feel like if we do, we can definitely put a lot of wins together and you know, make a little run in the [NCAA] Tournament,” McGusty said. “At the end of the day, that’s always the main goal.”
Summer workouts remain well under way and the guards have begun to acclimate themselves with their new teammates.
Said McGusty, “It’s always good to play with guys that help make you better. I definitely feel like Charlie and Isaiah help. We all complement each other, even just in these last two, three weeks we’ve been playing together. I mean, we look for each other, we find each other, we make ourselves better. I feel like that’s something that we really didn’t have last year. You know, we kind of all did it on our own and it’s good to play with guys that are always looking for you and guys that you can trust.”