“Who will be this year’s George Mason?” became an annual question asked by basketball fans and the alleged basketball experts. The answer, more often than not, was no one.
Larranaga just completed his best season since 2006. The Patriots were 27-7, won the CAA regular season title and were a No. 8 seed in the NCAA tournament. They came from behind to beat Villanova in their first game before being blown out by top-seeded Ohio State in the second round.
“I sat with Jim on the plane coming home that day and he felt very good about our season,” O’Connor said. “He knew we had played what might be the best team in the country in a place [Cleveland] where the building was full of their fans. I think he also knew that we should be very good again next year.”
It was during that plane flight that Larranaga and O’Connor discussed changes Larranaga wanted: to his contract, to the contracts of his assistants and to some of George Mason’s facilities. Larranaga’s two most experienced assistants, Chris Caputo and Eric Konkol, were both candidates for better-paying jobs at other schools, and Larranaga was afraid he might lose both of them.
O’Connor said Friday that he felt he and the school were making progress in a lot of the areas that he and Larranaga had discussed, although he conceded that the raises he could offer the assistant coaches weren’t as much as they might otherwise have been because of Title IX considerations. That might have added to Larranaga’s frustrations. After all, Larranaga began looking to leave Bowling Green in 1997 — coming off his best season there — because he was told his budget would have to be cut because of Title IX, the law that mandates gender equality in educational programs that receive federal funding.
All that said, it may well have been Merten’s impending retirement that pushed Larranaga from the comfort of a job he loved — and where he was loved — into the dangerous waters of the ACC. Miami could be very good next year, especially if center Reggie Johnson withdraws his name from the NBA draft by the May 8 deadline. Most ACC coaches believe that with Johnson on the team, the Hurricanes could be picked as high as third in next season’s preseason poll.
Even so, Miami has not exactly been a hoops hotbed in the almost 50 years since Rick Barry played there. In fact, the school shut down the basketball program completely from 1971 to 1985, and since the sport was reinstated, the Hurricanes have been to five NCAA tournaments in 26 years and have never advanced beyond the Sweet 16 — which they reached once, in 2000.
Larranaga, with his Final Four pedigree and his reputation as a clean program builder, clearly is what Shalala was looking for, regardless of age (he’s 61). Whether Larranaga can thrive in the recruiting cesspool that is often the ACC — and can persuade players who arrive on campus with NBA aspirations to buy into his all-for-one, one-for-all philosophy — is unclear.
Only one thing is clear: Regardless of why Larranaga left George Mason, it is a shame that he did. And O’Connor is absolutely right about at least one thing: The court at Patriot Center should be named for him. If you are uncertain of that, just look overhead the next time you are there. The first thing you will notice is a banner that says “Final Four 2006.”