Takeaways from Miami’s undefeated first three games of the season

After juniors Matthew Cleveland and Bensley Joseph each sink a pair of threes in succession forcing FIU to take a timeout, they celebrate during the 86-80 win in the Watsco Center. Photo credit: Charisma Jones

The Miami Hurricanes have kicked off the season with a 3-0 record. Their hot start has come from convincing wins over their first two opponents, NJIT and UCF, and a tight win over in-county rival FIU. Miami sits first in the ACC while ranking 12th in the AP Poll. Soon, the ‘Canes will depart to the Bahamas to take on big-time opponents in the Baha Mar Classic. Before the ‘Canes head off to paradise, let’s review their first three games at home.

Matthew Cleveland is Making a Big Impact as a Transfer

Miami made a single addition through the transfer portal in the off-season. Junior Matthew Cleveland came from the Panhandle to South Florida to play for Jim Larrañaga and the ‘Canes and wasted time making an impact on his new team. Currently, Cleveland is second on the team in points, scoring 17 a game, second in rebounds with 6.7, and tied for second in assists with 3.7.

The do-it-all guard is playing more as a big this season in Miami’s small-ball style. Cleveland is often seen crashing the boards on offense and has been doing a terrific job generating second-chance points. Typically, Cleveland has not had to be as physical as he’s been so far in his time at Miami, but Cleveland has been putting up great numbers in his third season of college basketball in his role.

“He’s been a great addition to our program,” said coach Larrañaga. “One of the nice things about having Matt Cleveland is he knew who we were before he transferred. He had interest in us because he’d played against us. He said, ‘Hey, I think I fit into your program’.”

The Georgia native has not just fit in; he’s excelled. Cleveland was named player of the game in the tightly contested contest against FIU. Without Cleveland’s clutch shots in that game, the ‘Canes may have let that one slip away. The FSU transfer is doing a tremendous job replacing Jordan Miller in the ‘Canes offense.

Role-Players From Last Season are Stepping Up

During Miami’s Final Four run, Isaiah Wong and Miller led the team, while Wooga Poplar and Bensely Joseph played roles as complementary players. This season, Poplar and Joseph have been the stars.

Poplar is the team’s leading scorer with 20.7 points per game and has been deadly accurate from three-point land – hitting 70 percent of his attempts from behind the arc. That’s almost unheard of. The Philadelphia native is playing the best basketball of his career and has set new career highs in two of his three games.

“[Wooga]’s an incredible three-point shooter and incredible pull-up jumper, he can make his free throws, he’s great going to the basket,” said Larrañaga after Poplar’s career-high 23 points against UCF. “As long as he stays in control of his own abilities, he’s going to have a sensational year.”

Joseph has turned into a necessity on both ends of the floor. The Massachusetts native was considered an elite on-ball defender last season but lacked confidence on offense. Joseph has been fearless in letting it fly this season and has had success with his shots – hitting 60 percent of all of them and 64.3 percent from three-point range.

“He’s (Joseph) great. He’s playing with a lot of confidence,” said Larrañaga. “The thing is, he keeps focusing on his defense. You let the offense come. You don’t focus on the offense cause then you get distracted and don’t play good defense. But, he’s really engaged himself on the defensive end of the floor and just let his offense materialize.”

Turnovers and Fouls are Persistent Issues

However, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows for the undefeated ‘Canes. Coach Larrañaga is not pleased with the amount of turnovers that the team is producing. Miami has been sloppy with the ball on offense, and it almost came back to bite them against FIU. In addition to the turnovers, Larrañaga is frustrated with the foul trouble Norchad Omier is getting himself into.

“Do I like him (Omier) sitting on the bench next to me for half the game? No,” said coach Larrañaga. “He’s got to be more self-disciplined.”

Larrañaga has talked about these issues after every single Miami victory. In all three post-game press conferences, Larrañaga has brought up that Miami has been careless with the ball on offense and that Omier has been getting into foul trouble.

“Sometimes the game comes down to very simple things… the two things I really don’t like, when we’re on offense I don’t like turnovers and when we’re on defense I don’t like fouls.”

These problems can become a significant concern as Miami takes on stricter opponents in the coming weeks.

Catch the ‘Canes in action this Friday as they take on the Georgia Bulldogs in the Bahamas. The ‘Canes will look to move to 4-0 before a ranked matchup with SEC powerhouse and college basketball blueblood Kentucky Wildcats. Tip-off for this matchup is set for 3:30 P.M. and can be seen on CBSSN.