Saturday night in Houston, the Miami Hurricanes will make their debut in the men's Final Four. It's a historic moment for an oft-overlooked program, and an opportunity to showcase their talents on the sport's biggest stage.
Right in the middle of things for the Canes will be junior guard Isaiah Wong. The 6-foot-3 Wong is the longest-tenured player on the Hurricanes, their unquestioned leader, and knockout champion.
In the era of the transfer portal, it's become increasingly rare for a player to stay in one place for more than a few seasons. Wong bucks the trend; the New Jersey native came to Miami in the fall of 2019 and has stayed the course. On a team where three key contributors - Jordan Miller, Norchad Omier, and Nijel Pack - transferred in from other programs, Wong represents continuity for Canes coaches and fans alike.
It's his quiet and persistent confidence, and penchant for hitting big shots at key moments, that has carried Miami to the precipice of their first ever national championship.
From Jersey to South Beach
Isaiah Wong grew up in Piscataway, New Jersey, a town about halfway between New York City and Philadelphia. As the 79th ranked player in his class, Wong was not having his doors knocked down by all the heavy blue bloods of college basketball. While finishing up high school in Philly, Wong was reportedly torn between a few of the schools recruiting him. Two of those schools? Miami and UConn. The same two schools taking the court Saturday night.
When asked about his relationship to the other New Jersey-connected players taking the floor on Saturday night, including Connecticut's Adama Sanogo, Wong revealed that he had been recruited by the Huskies. Wong, in his characteristic even-keeled demeanor elaborated, "That's the connection I have. I got recruited there and spent a lot of time thinking about UConn as a decision."
Dan Hurley on Isaiah Wong: ? we imagined a potential backcourt with him and James Bouknight. It was obviously an exciting dream that didn?t come to fruition? pic.twitter.com/RGISLYTRNW
— Adam Zagoria (@AdamZagoria) March 30, 2023
UConn's Dan Hurley confirmed Wong's account, saying he wished he could have had a backcourt of Isaiah Wong and James Bouknight, currently playing for the Charlotte Hornets.
The mutual respect between Wong and Hurley should make for an interesting subplot Saturday night. But fortunately for head coach Jim Larrañaga and Canes fans everywhere, Wong chose to take his talents to South Beach.
Wong was not an immediate star at Miami. In fact, he wasn't even a starter until midway through his freshman season. The Canes were a decidedly middle of the road team, finishing the season at 15-16 and just 7-13 in the ACC. But Wong did stand out as a scoring guard with potential. In his first career start, he put up 19 points on 6 of 11 from the field in 35 minutes at North Carolina.
Wong's leap between his freshman and sophomore year was immense. The experiences at the end of his first year confirmed his confidence in his own abilities, and he had a breakout season for the Canes, averaging over 17 points per game on the season, earning third-team All-ACC honors. Unfortunately, it all came in a losing campaign for Miami, who finished the season a hapless 10-17.
Turning It Around
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Following his sophomore breakout, Wong announced he would explore the NBA Draft. Ultimately, he decided the attention he was receiving from NCA scouts did not make it worthwhile for him to leave college, and so Wong decided to stay.
As a footnote here, it's worthwhile to note that Wong's decision to return to Miami coincided with Name, Image and Likeness rules changing, making it possible for college athletes to be compensated via endorsement. Perhaps in a different time, Wong would've tried to make the jump to professional basketball in 2021, maybe sticking with an NBA team, but likely settling for a contract overseas. Instead, he signed an endorsement deal worth a reported $100,000 with billionaire John Ruiz to hawk something called "LifeWallet."
Last season, the Canes started putting it together, going 14-6 in the ACC and ending up with a No. 10 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They pulled off a couple of upsets over USC and Auburn to set up a Sweet 16 date with No. 11 Iowa State. Ultimately, their dance ended with a loss to eventual champion Kansas in the Elite Eight. But for Wong and fellow backcourt mate Jordan Miller, it was a huge step forward and an indication that Miami was building something special.
The following offseason, Wong played a little bit of hardball in the NIL game, threatening to enter the transfer portal if he did not get a better NIL endorsement deal. While Wong and his family downplay these reports, saying he was always planning to return to Miami, it's clear the guard knew his worth. Wong was the leader of a team that had just made the Elite Eight; if anyone was going to be getting top NIL money in a major market like Miami, it should have been him.
This season, Wong's cool and calm has translated to even more Miami victories. The Canes went 15-5 in conference play, winning the ACC regular season title. And while many will nitpick and say the ACC was not as strong this year as it has been in recent seasons, Miami has proven in the NCAA Tournament that it knows how to win big games.
Facing a tough Indiana team in the second round, Wong went off, delivering 27 points and 8 rebounds as the Canes handled their business against the Hoosiers.
Isaiah Wong had a bounce back performance against #Indiana to help send #Miami to the Sweet 16 ? @zaywong21
27 PTS 8 REB 1 STL 9-17 FG 4-6 3PT 5-5 FT in 36 min
?? Looked more poised and in control when getting to spots; Decision Making was a lot better (didn?t rush things to? pic.twitter.com/38NUehS9Wg
— No Ceilings (@NoCeilingsNBA) March 21, 2023
He followed that performance up with 20 points and 6 boards against No. 1 Houston in the Sweet 16. Then, with Miami's season on the line in the Elite Eight, Wong hit some tough shots to help bring the Hurricanes back from the brink against No. 2 Texas.
Miami trailed by as many as 13 in the second half. Rather than panicking, Wong kept his normal calm and cool demeanor. The rest of the Canes followed suit, and they methodically chipped away at Texas's lead. Soon, it was the Longhorns who looked harried and pressed, and the Canes were cutting down the nets.
Miami goes into Saturday as pretty sizable underdogs against the Huskies. UConn has dominated throughout the NCAA Tournament, using their size and strength to dominate the boards, and their shotmaking ability to put teams away.
But if the Canes can stay within striking distance, do not count out the intangible coolness Isaiah Wong can bring to the matchup. Bet against Wong if you want, but you better be ready to face disappointment.
MORE: March Madness's Greatest Cinderella Stories of All Time
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