The University of Miami basketball team’s rise in Coach Jim Larranaga ’s second season has been acknowledged in the polls and remarked upon with amazement by national commentators. But to those who know Larranaga best, it also has had an air of familiarity.
Longwood Coach Mike Gillian, a member of Larranaga’s first staff at George Mason, has watched the Hurricanes’ success from the Farmville, Va., campus and has seen echoes of what first put Larranaga on the national stage seven years ago.
“Go look at the game against U-Conn.,” Gillian said, referencing George Mason’s victory over the Huskies in the regional final of the 2006 NCAA tournament. “What they ran on offense, they did it over and over again in the second half, and especially in overtime. If you watch Miami right now, primarily on offense is what they did in that game at the Verizon Center.
“But the guys that succeed at different places, for extended periods of time, there’s a reason why they did that. If they could, they would bottle it up and sell that.”
Larranaga, 63, is ditching the Cinderella role this time around. The fifth-ranked Hurricanes (23-4 overall, 14-1 ACC) are in line to earn a No. 1 seed in next month’s tournament, especially if they beat No. 3 Duke for the second time this season in a nationally televised rematch Saturday.
His approach, though, hasn’t changed much from his 14 seasons at George Mason, right down to the plays he used to lead an unheralded group from the Washington area to the Final Four.
“This is the way we’ve done it, and we’re gonna continue to do it a certain way,” Larranaga said. “But I wondered if this would work at the highest level.”
The transition to Coral Gables, Fla., has been anything but smooth . Four months after leaving Fairfax, Larranaga found himself embroiled in an NCAA investigation he and his staff had nothing to do with. Before his second season began, Larranaga watched the athletic director who hired him, Shawn Eichorst , jump ship and leave for Nebraska .
He also discovered a budget that, aside from recruiting expenses, was actually smaller than the one he managed at George Mason.
The off-court turmoil has hurt recruiting, Larranaga acknowledged, and it forced several players to sit out games last season, when Miami finished with the most conference wins in school history (nine) but fell just short of earning an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament.
“A lot of coaches would’ve let that destroy their attitude,” said Bob Rotella, a sports psychologist who works with Miami and one of Larranaga’s longtime confidantes.
Rotella remembers home games last season when the Hurricanes attracted no more than 1,500 fans. Each time, Larranaga would assure him, “Well, it’s not gonna be that way long.”
To manufacture excitement at Miami, where even the school’s high-profile football team can struggle to draw crowds amid a plethora of pro sports and entertainment options, Larranaga took a familiar “door-to-door” approach.
He sold the program whenever asked, whether it meant dinners with Miami’s wealthiest donors, speeches to the Greek system or helping out at Dwyane Wade’s fantasy basketball camp. He had the team spend nights “dorm storming,” handing out pizza and chicken wings to students. He started a youth clinic similar to the one he had in Fairfax. He laid awake in bed texting recruits until 1:30 in the morning. He has yet to turn down an interview request.
The BankUnited Center, meantime, has been sold out for four of the past six home games and students have begun lining up outside on “Larranaga’s Lawn” to get inside the building. Wade and fellow Miami Heat star LeBron James even sat courtside for a game earlier this month.
“If you go two miles east of here, homes are 10, 15 million dollars, and he’s very comfortable in those settings. Yet he’s very comfortable amongst every-day folk,” said Miami assistant Chris Caputo, who also worked under Larranaga for nine years at George Mason. “It was like hand-to-hand combat and a lot of it was similar [to George Mason], just in terms of building a love affair between the community and the basketball program.”
Larranaga loves numbers. He looks up the efficiency-based ratings at KenPom.com on his cellphone every day. He considers it more accurate than any of the national polls that have fallen in love with the Hurricanes this season, a way to determine exactly what he should be working on in practice.
It’s also how Larranaga introduced himself to Miami basketball in April 2011. In a small room of players who knew little about him other than his role in George Mason’s Final Four run, Larranaga went about persuading them his way was the right way.
“Where did we finish in terms of defending three-pointers?” he asked. The players all thought they were around No. 100 in the country. “No,” Larranaga responded. “We finished in the 200s. We were in the bottom third” in the country.
He asked them how they were with turnovers. “Pretty good,” the Hurricanes said. “No,” Larranaga responded. “We’re ranked around 218.”
He then explained how all the best teams in the country hold opponents under one point per possession (“Hopefully around .92, he said.), informing them that the team would go from playing predominantly zone defense to almost exclusively man-to-man.
“At first, when you meet him you’re like, ‘Uhh, I don’t know if it’s gonna work out,’ ” forward Kenny Kadji said last week, when reminded of that first encounter. “I didn’t know how he would lead us with the age difference, but he’s such an energized guy. He can relate to anybody.
“He pretty much brought us back down to earth and he showed us, or told us, about being good. We had no idea.”
Larranaga inherited a veteran team that features six seniors this season and signed point guard Shane Larkin, the son of baseball Hall of Famer Barry Larkin, just before last season began. The Orlando native is now an ACC player of the year candidate as a sophomore.
But as Rotella pointed out, Larranaga made a conscious decision to “believe in these kids” rather than start over, a concept Rotella thinks was ingrained in him after George Mason’s Final Four run. Even Larranaga concedes that earlier in his career, “I coached every turnover, every pass, every shot, evaluated every referee’s call or no call and tried to correct every mistake. Now I just clap when they make a mistake. You can talk about it the next day.”
“He has a lot of confidence in us,” sixth-year senior Julian Gamble said. “Probably more confidence than we have in ourselves sometimes.”
Not one to just give away his secrets, Larranaga insists Gillian must have meant something different, because Miami isn’t having success just because of one play. Perhaps what Gillian’s really referring to is “when we find something that works, we ride it,” Larranaga said.
But Virginia Tech Coach James Johnson and High Point Coach Scott Cherry, both assistants under Larranaga in 2006, agreed separately that the Hurricanes are running the same offensive sets the Patriots rode to the Final Four.
Even Larranaga can’t fight some of the parallels, such as how both teams suffered embarrassing early-season defeats that proved to be catalysts the rest of the year: Miami lost to Florida Gulf Coast in its season opener, while in November 2005, George Mason lost to Creighton by 20.
“It’s a similar team he has now,” Cherry said. “He allows them to be who they are within their skill set that fits into his philosophy and his system. He’s the best at that.”
Just this week, Larranaga canceled all of his players’ interviews after Miami’s 14-game winning streak ended in a double-digit loss at Wake Forest on Saturday. The Hurricanes rebounded with a 76-58 victory over Virginia Tech on Wednesday night.
This, it seems, is the main difference between George Mason’s improbable Final Four trip and the one Miami hopes to embark on. The Patriots didn’t attract national attention until Selection Sunday, when they drew the ire of national pundits by receiving an unexpected at-large bid. Larranaga’s Hurricanes, none of whom has played in the NCAA tournament, have been dealing with the glare of the spotlight since Jan. 23, when their fans rushed the court after a 90-63 blowout of then-No. 1 Duke.
So don’t expect him to savor it all just yet.
“We haven’t even made the NCAA tournament. We’ve got a lot of things that we hope to accomplish, this year and in the future,” Larranaga said. “We’ve already accomplished a lot in a short period of time, but hopefully there’s a lot more years in front of you.”