Sports: The secret to Miami's Sweet 16 success? Hurricanes are older than some NBA teams | Opinion

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On Sunday night, the Oklahoma City Thunder played the Orlando Magic in a game where the oldest starter on either team was Isaiah Roby, who turned 24 last month. The average age of the Thunder’s starting lineup was 21.8 years old, while the Magic’s was slightly younger at 21.4.

And they were both younger than the lineup Miami put on the floor Sunday night — not the Miami Heat, but the Miami Hurricanes in the NCAA Tournament.

With a starting five whose youngest member is 21-year old Isaiah Wong, it perhaps shouldn’t be so surprising that the Hurricanes have made it to the Sweet 16 despite being an overlooked No. 10 seed entering the tournament.

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In an era of college basketball that is tilting toward experience and physicality over the short-term brilliance of one-and-done freshmen, Miami is old enough to be a G-League team — and it’s a formula that paid off Sunday in a stunningly impressive 79-61 victory over No. 2 seed Auburn.

Miami players (L-R) Isaiah Wong, Charlie Moore and Kameron McGusty celebrate the Hurricanes' second-round NCAA Tournament victory over Auburn on Sunday. © Bob Donnan, USA TODAY Sports Miami players (L-R) Isaiah Wong, Charlie Moore and Kameron McGusty celebrate the Hurricanes' second-round NCAA Tournament victory over Auburn on Sunday.

“We played very fundamental,” coach Jim Larrañaga said Monday on The Joe Rose Show on 560 WQAM in Miami. "We didn’t try to hit home runs. We tried to make a lot of singles and share it and give everybody a chance.”

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The Hurricanes may not have been a popular pick to advance very far in this tournament after finishing fourth in the ACC, a conference that did not impress either pundits or computers in the regular season. Miami also struggled to start the year, losing non-conference games to UCF, Dayton and Alabama in a 32-point blowout.

But now, with the Hurricanes advancing to the Midwest Regional to face No. 11 seed Iowa State, they’re not just a great story. Because of how this Miami team is built, it suddenly looks like a legitimate threat to make the Final Four.

In modern college basketball, the notion of reloading every year with five-star prospects like John Calipari and Mike Krzyzewski did for much of the 2010s just isn’t going to cut it as a blueprint to advance deep in the tournament.

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Though roster-building in college basketball is far more art than science, particularly now with players having a free one-time transfer in their pocket, experience is the sport’s most valuable currency. And Miami has more of it than anyone left in the Sweet 16.

The Hurricanes are good, obviously. But more than that, they’re adults in every sense of the word. Kameron McGusty and Charlie Moore, Miami’s starting backcourt, are 24-year olds who have been in college for six years thanks to transfers and the extra season of eligibility granted by the NCAA due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Stretch forward Sam Waardenburg is 23 and also a sixth-year senior. Jordan Miller, a 6-foot-7 wing, has had a more conventional career but transferred to Miami this season after starting for three years at George Mason. Wong is the young one of the group, playing in his third college season.

Miami does not have great size, often playing five-out on offense, and has not used its bench much at all in the first two tournament games. But if you’re trying to build an unlikely team to make a deep run in March, this is largely what it would look like: Older guards who attack the paint, defensively interchangeable wings and enough balance on offense that makes it difficult to build a blueprint to stop them.

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Though Wong and McGusty tend to do most of the scoring (they have scored 20 or more points a combined 23 times this season), Miller has a couple 25-point games this year, you can typically count on Moore for 12 to 15 points and even Waardenburg has scored 15 or more on five occasions.

“All five starters are capable of having big 20-point games or more,” Larrañaga said on WQAM. “When you have that kind of balance in your offense where so many guys can contribute, it makes it difficult on your opponent.”

For good measure, Miami has been the best team in the tournament at taking care of the ball. The Hurricanes turned it over just three times in the first round against Southern Cal and four times against Auburn, a sharp contrast with a frenzied, disorganized Tigers team that got baited into quick, low-quality shots (5-for-26 from three) and 13 turnovers.

For a team that finished 10-17 last season and hadn’t been in the NCAA Tournament since 2018, it would be hard to deny the impact of the transfer portal on Miami’s turnaround. Miller was a third-team All-Atlantic 10 player last season averaging 15.8 points per game, while Moore has been college basketball's quintessential nomad.

After originally committing to Josh Pastner at Memphis in the fall of 2015, Moore ended up going to Cal to play for Cuonzo Martin when Pastner left for Georgia Tech. After one season there, he went to Kansas where he had to sit out for a year then came off the bench for the Jayhawks in 2018-19. Moore played the next two seasons at DePaul, to be closer to his ailing father in his hometown of Chicago, but hit the portal again after coach Dave Leitao was fired.

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Though not all of those experiences have been good ones, it would be hard to find a player in college basketball who has seen as many things as Moore playing in the Pac-12, Big 12, Big East and ACC.

“Is there anybody else in college basketball history that has been on that kind of journey?” Larrañaga said after the Auburn game.

Last week, McGusty compared Moore’s impact to Chris Paul at Wake Forest in 2004 and 2005.

“He's our quarterback,” McGusty said. "He gets us in the right sets. He's the one who we trust with the ball making decisions. Plays hard defense. He picks up the opposing team's point guard 94 feet. One of the best on-ball defenders in our conference, as you can see being an all-defensive team player. He gets us going.”

Miami is certainly not a perfect team. The Hurricanes were a No. 10 seed for a reason, and most people wouldn’t have picked them to make their first Elite Eight in school history. But once the tournament starts and the games come down to matchups, adjustments and which team can keep its cool under pressure, having such mature players is the X-factor that could carry the Hurricanes to places they’ve never been.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: The secret to Miami's Sweet 16 success? Hurricanes are older than some NBA teams | Opinion

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