Miami men’s basketball set for stacked ESPN Events Invitational

The Hurricanes tip-off against Florida A&M on Nov. 21, 2021 at the Watsco Center. Photo credit: Alex Carnochan
The Hurricanes tip-off against Florida A&M on Nov. 21, 2021 at the Watsco Center.
The Hurricanes tip-off against Florida A&M on Nov. 21, 2021 at the Watsco Center. Photo credit: Alex Carnochan

While college basketball fans chow down on their turkey day feasts on Thursday, the Miami Hurricanes will be stuffed with seven other NCAA Tournament teams.

After starting their 2021 season as victors of three of their first four games, the Canes are set for the ESPN Events Invitational tournament in Orlando, Florida, their toughest stretch of non-conference games this season.

The Hurricanes (3-1) will face three teams that qualified for March Madness last season and can potentially face two AP top 10-ranked opponents. While UM is the lone team traveling to Orlando that didn’t participate in postseason hoops last spring, it does enter on a two-game winning streak, beating in-state foes Florida Atlantic and Florida A&M within the last week. Historically, the Hurricanes have impressed in neutral site tournaments, going 53-29 in multi-site games since the program’s rebirth in 1985.

Miami will open up against a foe that has frustrated it for years, playing their first-round matchup against the Dayton Flyers, who are 7-1 against the Canes all-time. It will be the seventh meeting all-time between head coaches Jim Larrañaga and Anthony Grant, with Grant holding a commanding 4-2 record against Larrañaga.

“He and I have battled against each other many times before… [Grant] is an outstanding coach,” Larrañaga said. “Their team this year is very typical of an Anthony Grant team. They have a lot of size … They run a lot of different offenses.”

Grant’s team is an inexperienced group, with 12 underclass players on its roster. The Flyers have the second-most freshmen and redshirt freshmen in the NCAA, behind Arizona. That being said, Dayton still boasts deadly talent.

Toumani Camara, who chose Dayton over Miami this off-season, has done nothing but contribute in his first cracks with his new team. The former Georgia forward has led the Flyers twice in scoring this season, including a 15-point, 10-rebound double-double in his Dayton debut against Illinois-Chicago. Another dangerous player is true freshman DaRon Holmes II, a consensus four-star power forward who is listed as the highest-ranked recruit in UD history.

With the Hurricanes currently in the bottom half of the Atlantic Coast Conference in rebounding, the Flyers pose a big challenge for Coach L’s team. But despite their repertoire, the Flyers (1-3) haven’t gotten off the ground to start this season. Dayton has lost three straight games entering this tournament, all against inferior opponents, including those of the Ohio Valley and American East conferences. UD enters Orlando as the last-place team in the American East, but Miami isn’t relieved with the Flyers’ slow start, but rather alerted.

“They’re a very young, energetic team,” Miami forward Sam Waardenburg said. “They’re going to be coming out with a lot of hunger, and that’s a challenge we have to be ready for.”

If the Hurricanes can top the Flyers, they will face the winner of Thursday’s second game between the North Texas Mean Green and the No. 4 Kansas Jayhawks. If Miami falls, it will face the respective loser of that game. Regardless, both teams provide dangerous challenges.

Despite Kansas’ early exit to Southern California in last year’s tournament, head coach Bill Self’s Jayhawks are always a strong regular season team. Kansas went 21-9 last season, and even being 12 games above .500, posted its worst record in the Self era in Lawrence, Kansas. This season, the Jayhawks have exploded out of the gates, scoring at least 87 points in each of their first three games.

Senior guard Ochai Agbaji has slowly progressed from role player to superstar. He’s been exceptional early on, averaging 26.3 points per game, including a career-high 29 points in KU’s opening night victory over Michigan State. Kansas does face injury concerns, with guards Remy Martin and Bobby Pettiford each not practicing within the last four days. Self said both are expected to play in Orlando earlier this week.

The prospect of playing Kansas is appetizing to all Hurricanes, but especially for point guard Charlie Moore, who spent two years in Lawrence, sitting out one year due to transfer eligibility. The Chicago native never got the chance to shine for Kansas but might just get the opportunity to dominate against his old team.

“It would be fun to play an old school I attended,” Moore said following Miami’s win over Florida A&M. “We have to win a game before we play them, so we’re taking it one game at a time.”

If results go another way, Miami will be matched up against North Texas, a team smaller than most in this invitational, but a team that deserves more respect. The Mean Green have blossomed under head coach Grant McCasland, who has taken them to a Conference USA regular season title and a C-USA tournament championship victory in each of the last two seasons.

It was a miracle 2020-21 season for UNT, earning its first-ever NCAA Tournament victory over fourth-seeded Purdue. In addition, it was also North Texas’ first win over an AP Top 25 opponent in 49 years.

The Mean Green, similar to Dayton, have had a lot of adjusting to do in a little amount of time. North Texas returns just two of its five starters from last season and also welcome nine new freshmen.

Two players that stand out are forward Thomas Bell and junior college transfer Tylor Perry. Bell, one of the few returners from last season, just scored his 500th UNT point in an opening night win over Oklahoma Christian. He is also a force on the glass, finishing nine games with seven or more rebounds last season. Perry, an NCJAA Second Team All-American last season, has exploded out of the gates at the NCAA level, averaging 17.3 points per game, while shooting 56.3% on 3-pointers, including five made threes in UNT’s win over Oklahoma Christian.

After the first results come through Friday, Miami will get a day off on Saturday before facing one of Alabama, Iona, Belmont or Drake to wrap up the tournament. Even with the stacked field, this could be the best chance for the Hurricanes to impress in non-conference play, and one guard believes that this is the perfect time to strike.

“This is a great team right now, with all the new players coming in and getting comfortable,” Miami combo guard Isaiah Wong said on Monday. “With healthy bodies, they all have unique talent … We really have a good team this year compared to last year.”

Wong has been stellar in the last three games, but also had some exceptional support. The Hurricanes have four players averaging over 10 points per game thus far, including returning starter Kameron McGusty, Moore and third-year sophomore Anthony Walker.

With a healthy roster that has gone deep into its bench and holds a newfound sense of confidence, the ESPN Events Invitational provides an excellent test of who the Hurricanes are in 2021. It seems that there’s an overwhelming feeling that Larrañaga, Wong, and the rest of Miami are eager to prove a point.

UM tips off against Dayton on Thursday at 12:30 p.m. and will play again on Friday, but start times are still to be determined depending on results.