Entering the 2021-2022 season, the Miami Hurricanes men’s basketball team was not a top-tier projection in the Atlantic Coast Conference. And that was no surprise around the league.
The Hurricanes, after all, finished 10-17 last season. And while many of the same players were returning with another year of experience, Miami had failed to attract any of the top high-school recruits from the Class of 2021. The Hurricanes were largely disregarded, with a roster primarily made up of upperclassmen with little to no prospect of a pro career.
So much for prognostications.
While displaying the spunk and spirit that coach Jim Larranaga often illustrates on the sideline, Miami authored a surprising 23-10 season that landed the Hurricanes in the NCAA Tournament. And despite being an underdog twice in three days, Miami, a No. 10 seed, upset No. 7 USC, 68-66, on Friday, and Auburn, 79-61, on Sunday to reach the Sweet 16.
“Well, it took us a while,” Larranaga said after the stunning win over the No. 2 Tigers in Greenville, S.C. “We’re small, but we are quick and we play the scramble defense and the guys did it to perfection.”
One of those “guys” is Sam Waardenburg, a New Zealand native and key cog to the entire season. And while NCAA Tournament fans are just getting to know his name now, Larranaga had major plans for Waardenburg, 23, all the way back when preseason practice began. The coach, in fact, often speaks about his team’s lack of size — and how it’s an issue in certain matchups — but he knew Waardenburg, at 6-foot-10 and 225 points, could be an elixir for that.
Waardenburg received eligibility to return to the Hurricanes as a graduated senior under an NCAA rule allowing players an additional season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Waardenburg had missed his original fifth year of eligibility due to a left foot injury he suffered during preseason practice in October 2020. But all the while, Larranaga waited patiently for his return, knowing he could help to change things at The U.
“[The team] drastically missed Sam Waardenburg last year, he was our leading returning rebounder, our leading returning shot-blocker, and he is very much a glue guy,” the coach said. “He’s our best big defender, and not having him created a host of question marks in our frontcourt.”
Waardenburg has answered those questions, and the NCAA Tournament has provided ample evidence.
Against Auburn, he played 35 minutes, stayed out of foul trouble, and finished with seven points, five rebounds and two blocks. Included in there was a memorable dunk that ignited the Hurricanes. Against USC, he finished with just five points, but his four blocks and three defensive rebounds were the types of hustle statistics that win games in March.
“When you try to blend those types of skills together, quite often, there are a lot of mistakes that are made,” Larranaga said. “But as we improved, our chemistry developed.”
Waardenburg has been at the heart of that transition, and Larranaga has stressed that often during his NCAA Tournament media availabilities. And while there are many Hurricanes responsible for this surprising run, there is only one from Auckland, New Zealand.
Indeed, Waardenburg grew up more than 8,000 miles away from Coral Gables in a city he describes as “relaxed.” He said he had no real pressures and lived fairly comfortably with his parents and older brother as he began to build his basketball skill-set.
He was introduced to the sport at around five years old and admitted he was not the best and was very uncoordinated, as most children are when starting to play. He continued playing as a hobby, but at around age 15, he realized he could have a real future in the game.
By 16, Waardenburg was already considered one of the top prospects in the country, and it was only a matter of time before schools from the United States took note of his play.
Larranaga was tipped off about Waardenburg and his potential fit in Miami’s program by his son, Jay. Jay Larranaga was an assistant coach for the Boston Celtics at the time but took note of how Waardenburg performed as a member of New Zealand’s Youth National Team. The Hurricanes ultimately signed Waardenburg in 2017. Since then, he’s excelled not only on the court but also in his academic career.
That’s not to say things have always gone smoothly for the Hurricanes’ starting center. Transitioning to Miami from Auckland had some roadblocks.
“For a few months, I was homesick,” he said. “I went from quiet, New Zealand basketball gyms to being in some of the biggest and loudest basketball arenas in the world.”
Five years later, here he is — front and center at March Madness — running the floor, finishing dunks, and then meeting the national media at the podium. He has come a long way from being the wide-eyed 17-year-old kid who landed in Florida in 2017.
Miami graduate assistant Michael Beovides sees Waardenburg in all situations — games, practices and meetings — and he has witnessed the transition.
“The area I have seen Sam impact the most this season specifically has been his ability to step up and become a leader. Throughout his career, he has never been asked to do more than he has this season and he has taken on the challenge head-on,” Beovides said. “Sam pushes himself and his teammates on a daily basis.”
Waardenburg has improved his averages in almost every statistical category and his efforts have helped Miami to arguably its most successful season since the program relaunched in 1985. Headed into Friday’s Sweet 16 game vs. Iowa State in Chicago, he averages 8.5 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.3 blocks.
“Without the efforts that Sam puts in on a daily basis, the amount of success that this team has accomplished would be nearly impossible,” Beovides said. “He is without a doubt the most irreplaceable asset of the team.”
Through March madness, academics have not taken a back seat. Waardenburg is finishing his second Master’s Degree in liberal arts, and may decide to pursue pro basketball overseas after graduation.
For now, though, his main focus is on helping Miami continue to exceed expectations … and maybe land in the Final Four.