By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 29, 2006
Larranaga relatives were everywhere last weekend: cousins, siblings, in-laws and grandparents. Elyssa Larranaga, a deputy director of scheduling in the office of Vice President Cheney, had arranged a Saturday evening tour of the West Wing for some of those family members, who were in town to watch the George Mason basketball team become the biggest sports story in the country. But shortly before the White House tour, her husband, Jon, arrived home and said he needed at least an hour to prepare a scouting report for his father.
"She looked at me like, 'You're kidding,' " Jon Larranaga said yesterday. " 'We're going to tour the White House, the Oval Office, the Situation Room, the most powerful building in the world. And you want to get on the computer to e-mail your dad stats about Connecticut?' "
Like Florida, LSU and UCLA -- the other participants in the men's Final Four -- George Mason has three full-time assistant coaches who have stopped paying their utility bills and doing their laundry while somehow coaxing George Mason to the most unlikely Final Four berth in NCAA tournament history. But the Patriots also have Coach Jim Larranaga's two sons, Jay and Jon, who have spent hours this month preparing in-depth statistical analyses and filling their father's inbox with unsolicited advice.
Before the Patriots' first-round game, Jay, 31, noticed that while Michigan State was excellent at shooting free throws, the Spartans had attempted 16 or fewer free throws in most of their Big 10 losses.
"If you know that, you just don't let them shoot 16 free throws and you win," he said yesterday. "Something like that's so profound." (The Spartans shot five free throws against George Mason and lost.)
Jon, 25, noticed that Connecticut's statistical rankings were impeccable in virtually every category, but that the Huskies had made very few three-pointers and that only Rashad Anderson was a true long-distance threat.
"Besides that, they didn't have anybody," he said. "If you're playing against a team that only has one shooter, maybe you play a little more zone that game, you shade the great shooter and keep them off the glass. Know when they shoot the three if it's not Anderson, they're probably going to miss."
Before the White House tour, Jon hurriedly prepared a brief scouting report. He sent off 467 words of advice and a statistical attachment to his father, whose reply consisted of five words: "I think you are right." (The Huskies made 2 of 13 three-point attempts in the second half and overtime against George Mason and lost.)
This is not a typical procedure, even for two sons who both call Jim Larranaga their role model. Jay, who played for his father at Bowling Green, is a professional basketball player in Italy and has two young children. Jon, who played for his father at George Mason, works for the Meltzer Group, a financial services company in Bethesda. Jay aspires to a career in coaching, and Jon is a volunteer coach for a group of eighth-graders in Northern Virginia, but neither made a habit of preparing scouting reports during the regular season.
"We do have jobs," Jon Larranaga said. "This happens to be one of the most unbelievable runs in the history of sports in the U.S., so we're trying to do everything we can to help our dad."
The family always had been obsessed with basketball; the sons took recruiting road trips with their father, and Jay thought nothing of inviting his high school sweetheart and future wife to watch the NBA playoffs with his family early in their courtship.
"They weren't cheering for anyone; they were just watching the game," Andrea Larranaga said. "After the third game that night I was like, 'All right, I'm out of here; just call me tomorrow.' And they all looked at me like, 'What? You're not going to watch the end of the game?' That was my introduction to the family. They love to watch basketball, and they love to be together."
So when the Patriots closed in on their first at-large NCAA tournament berth this season, the sons got to work. Jay, working in Naples, began compiling Rating Percentage Index data and formulating his own NCAA tournament field. Once the Patriots were safely in the tournament, he would suddenly blurt out advice at the dinner table: "They've got to lock down on defense!" he might say. Notebooks began accumulating.
"All over the bedroom, the bathroom, the computer desk," Andrea Larranaga said. "Listing when teams played other teams, how they performed, why they performed that way. I think I've seen 'Wichita State' written down a gazillion times."
Jon has spent between 90 minutes and two hours on the Internet every day, breaking down opponents' game-by-game statistics while also trading phone calls with his dad and brother.
"It's like a second job," Elyssa Larranaga said. "I joke around with him; I say that on a husband status, March hasn't been good for him. But he's just an amazing guy, an amazing husband and is so proud of his dad and this team that you can't help but smile and go along for the ride."
While both wives joke about the amount of time their husbands have spent on the Internet, and while even Jay's 3-year old daughter Tia has made comments about her dad's computer work, both wives are as green-and-gold as they come. When Andrea couldn't get streaming video of the U-Conn. game, she logged on to http://www.caazone.com/ and scoured the George Mason message board for updates. When CBS producers called looking for her husband, who was watching the game with his team in Milan, she felt like volunteering to take his place.
"I was thinking, 'I've got to talk to you, I've got some basketball I need to get off my chest,' " she said.
Meantime, the e-mails have piled up: five or six a day from Jay and several more from Jon. They both will travel to Indianapolis for the Final Four. Neither son has watched tape of upcoming opponents, but both share their father's obsession with numbers. Before the media throngs alighted on Patriot Center, Jim Larranaga would often start his postgame news conferences by reciting one statistic after another from the box score.
And so his sons have combed through media notes and NCAA rankings and late-season box scores, looking for any advantage while enjoying a slice of the magic.
"I've enjoyed this so much, e-mailing with my dad and my brother, but the bottom line is his players have played great, and none of these statistics really matter that much in comparison to what the players do," Jay Larranaga said. "Hopefully we've been able to help a little bit, but players win games."
Before the Connecticut game, Jon told his dad which players to foul if the Patriots were trailing, while Jay told his dad that George Mason needed to work the ball inside to its forwards and that containing Huskies point guard Marcus Williams would be the key.
"I asked him if he had any suggestions of how we could do that," Jim Larranaga said. "He said: 'No, you're the coach. You figure it out.' "