Lutz: Matthew Cleveland is the dynamic piece Miami needs

During the ‘Canes second half 23-2 run against FIU, junior Matthew Cleveland screams in celebration after getting a defensive rebound and sinking a three-pointer, forcing FIU to call a timeout. Photo credit: Charisma Jones

“Cleveland for the win … It’s good! Matthew Cleveland stuns Miami!” exclaimed a television broadcaster as then-Florida State guard Matthew Cleveland hit a shot from mid-court as time expired to cap off a 25-point second-half deficit and beat Miami at the Watsco Center.

This was most of the Miami faithful’s introduction to Cleveland. Fast forward about eight months later, and he is the talk of the town in Coral Gables.

“My main thing entering the transfer portal was to go somewhere I can win,” the big offseason addition for Miami said during UM’s media day.

Heading into the 2023-24 college basketball season, the theme for the Hurricanes is all about keeping momentum. There is a lot of hype surrounding the program after coming off of its first Elite Eight run in 2022, followed by a trip to the Final Four last season.

Miami lost two key contributors from each run in ACC Player of the Year Isaiah Wong and 15.3 point per game scorer Jordan Miller to the NBA draft. The loss of star talent begs the question: how will Miami keep it going? Head coach Jim Larranaga followed that up with the recruitment of Cleveland.

Miami’s new tar was welcomed to UM in May and has been the epicenter of conversation heading into the new season. A guy who played just up i95 in Tallahassee last year, Cleveland is a 6-foot-7, 208-pound wing with incredible size and athleticism. 

“The biggest thing I saw was the success they have had with transfers,” Cleveland said. “Year-to-year, the transfers here have been successful.”

In Miami’s first three games of the season, Cleveland has been a main reason for the team’s successful 3-0 start. Cleveland recorded a 16-point double-double against N.J.I.T., followed by a fantastic defensive effort against UCF that included three steals and two blocked shots.

His most recent game against FIU brought out the star potential Miami sees in Cleveland. On Monday night, Cleveland recorded 23 points on 80% shooting and went three for three from beyond the arc.

It has been a long road for Cleveland, but it finally feels like the right spot for a guy with exponential potential.

Cleveland’s game makes him one of the most fascinating players to watch in the country. At his size, he can practically play any role on the court. Cleveland uses his size to attack downhill quickly, and once he decides to rise up to the rim, it is not so wise to jump with him. In just three games, Cleveland looks to be a very nice fit alongside scoring guards Wooga Poplar and Nijel Pack.

Cleveland’s length and quickness make him an elite defender that can guard all five positions, something Miami has been missing the past two years. The versatility of Cleveland as a positionless defender and his rebounding ability are vital for the Hurricanes as the season progresses.  

Rewinding back to high school, Cleveland has always been a name to watch out for. As a five-star recruit, Cleveland was the 27th-ranked player in the country, according to 247Sports. Cleveland always showed a lot of potential because of his size combined with athletic ability, but he did not reach his full potential until he truly started to grow into himself. Cleveland started at Cambridge High School in Milton, Georgia before transferring to the well-known Pace Academy, and that is where things ramped up for him.

At Pace, Cleveland led his team to two 2A state championships, averaging over 22 points per game in his two years and a double-double in his senior year. He chose Florida State as his home over the likes of North Carolina, Michigan, Kansas and Kentucky.

Cleveland’s skillset was on full display out the gate, making an immediate impact as a true freshman. He started eight games and averaged 11.5 points per game, 4.6 rebounds per game and shot 45% from the field. He followed that up with an even better sophomore season, starting every game and averaging 13.8 points per game, 7.4 rebounds per game and a drastically improved three-pointer, something that continues to improve.

Unfortunately for Cleveland, Florida State’s program had been struggling immensely, and he wanted to play somewhere else.

The switch to Miami seemed like a no-brainer. The Hurricanes were in major need of a player with the style of Cleveland.

Cleveland truly is the best player Larrañaga could’ve added to this system and will be implemented into the lineup in multiple different ways. Defensively, Miami needed a player who could defend multiple positions, and that is one of Cleveland’s strong suits. He has the size to guard down low, and if he is on a guard and gets blown by, he has the athletic ability to recover for a block. Working alongside forward Norchad Omier down low, the ‘Canes will have a strong defensive presence in the paint throughout the year.

Cleveland’s ability to run the floor is going to fit in perfectly with Miami’s transitional game. Expect Cleveland’s offensive game to continue to fit nicely for fastbreak buckets. On offense, Cleveland can play alongside Omier in the post, bring the ball up the floor or even be a pure wing if he needs to.

Miami’s style under Larrañaga is the type of environment where a sensational athlete like Cleveland is going to shine. It will be exciting to see how the coaching staff can creatively incorporate the versatility of Cleveland into the game plan.

Through its first three games, Miami looks sharp and polished on both sides of the ball, with Cleveland leading the way.

“This is definitely the most talented team I have been a part of … I want to win,” Cleveland said.

Miami has gotten a taste of college basketball glory, and the time is now. If the Hurricanes want to take another big step this season, it is going to take difference-makers. Cleveland can be that difference-maker who can take over a game.