No. 13 Miami, seeking scoring solutions, opens vs. NJIT

The 13th-ranked Miami Hurricanes, who made it to the Final Four last season, will open their new campaign on Nov. 6 against the visiting NJIT Highlanders.

Miami lost its top two scorers from last season — ACC Player of the Year Isaiah Wong (16.2 points per game) and second-team all-conference wing Jordan Miller (15.3). Both players were selected in the second round of the NBA draft, Wong by the Indiana Pacers and Miller by the Los Angeles Clippers.

The Hurricanes return 6-foot-7 power forward Norchad Omier, who finished third in the ACC in rebounds (10.0 per game) last season. Miami also brings back point guard Nijel Pack, who averaged 13.6 points while displaying logo-type range.

Miami’s third returning starter is 6-5 shooting guard Wooga Poplar, who averaged 8.4 points but is ready to explode, according to Hurricanes coach Jim Larranaga.

“Wooga may have the best pull-up jumper in college basketball,” Larranaga said. “We had a scrimmage recently, and he scored 31 points.

“He’s also a heck of a defensive player and a 3-point shooter. He has two years of eligibility remaining, but I don’t know if we’ll be able to keep him after this season. He’s an NBA prospect.”

Miami’s big offseason addition was 6-7 wing Matthew Cleveland, a transfer from rival Florida State. Cleveland, selected the ACC’s Sixth Man of the Year as a freshman in 2021-22, averaged 13.8 points and 7.4 rebounds last season.

Who else will emerge beyond Miami’s “Big Four” remains to be seen.

Miami brought in five freshmen, including 6-10, 245-pound center Michael Nwoko, who has been praised by Larranaga as being the Hurricanes’ best rebounder not named Omier.

However, Larranaga also said all of the freshmen need to improve on defense, which means they might have to start the year on the bench.

That leaves returning role players such as 6-2 point guard Bensley Joseph, 6-5 shooting guard Jakai Robinson, 6-7 wing Christian Watson and 6-9 power forward AJ Casey.

Larranaga said Robinson worked hard all summer to improve his shot, which had been his weakness. The coach also said Watson and Casey have gotten stronger.

If everything breaks right, the Hurricanes, who practiced in July before taking a team trip to France — winning all three of their exhibition games — could be just as good as last season’s squad.

“It’s like my grandson, who is in the eighth grade,” Larranaga said. “He recently got his first dunk, and that boosted his confidence. If you think you can do something, that’s good. If you believe you can do it, that’s better. But if you do it, that’s the best.”

Miami’s opening opponent, the Highlanders, can also use confidence after finishing 7-23 last season.

Perhaps new coach Grant Billmeier can provide a boost. The native of New Jersey is back in his home state after serving as an assistant coach last season at Maryland.

Previously, Billmeier was an assistant coach at Seton Hall, where he helped Sandro Mamukelashvili become the co-Big East Player of the Year in 2020-21.

“He was my mentor,” said Mamukelashvili, who now plays for the San Antonio Spurs. “He recruited me, stayed late in the gym with me and got me to where I am.”

Billmeier inherits a Highlanders team that went 4-12 last season in the America East Conference.

Their biggest threat is 6-4 shooting guard Adam Hess, who is playing for his fourth college squad. Last season, he was one of the best 3-point shooters in the nation, making 43.3 percent for NJIT. He averaged 10.7 points, with more than half of his 106 field goals coming from long range.