CORAL GABLES, Fla. — If you were a human being with all the complications therein, and you watched Miami beat Gardner-Webb on Friday and Navy on Sunday in men’s basketball, your brain might have clouded with skirmishes between intrigue and sadness.
Somehow, this ACC program with the delightfully prosaic gym . . . with the free parking nearby . . . with the attendances of 7,073 and 6,611 that felt fewer . . . with the unusually excellent chance of catching the T-shirts they throw in a timeout promotion . . . with the introduction of opponents drawing only one fan’s sole, throaty boo . . . with the campus consumed by a towering football win over Notre Dame . . . with the authentic, listenable, unpretentious head coach . . . has become an emblem of a strangeness.
It’s the strangeness of watching men’s college basketball in 2017-18, the first season in the history of the game, with all its glory and its gory, to be witnessed while knowing the FBI continues to dig around the underbelly and also knowing the FBI does not issue a schedule with dates and tip-off times. It might reappear at any moment.
Here’s the kind of sentence that wouldn’t have appeared before late September: Miami (2-0) looks like a gem of a team with a program-high preseason ranking of No. 13, and Miami also appeared in the haunting catacombs of the FBI report that crashed in late September.
At the helm for a seventh season is Jim Larranaga, 68, the Larranaga of George Mason’s 2006 Final Four starburst, the Larranaga of 2012-13 ACC champion Miami so likable that, well, let’s just say if you went in that locker room and talked to those veteran players with their rare camaraderie, you might have had a weird urge to ask to join the team. Given that the surname “Larranaga” has had its legitimate turns near the adjective “beloved” and given that Miami hasn’t appeared in any Final Four or final eight, it’s possible the glummest part of the FBI report might have been the intercepted phone calls that mention “Coach-3,” wherein various indicted men chatter about the alleged complicity of “Coach-3” in a scheme to funnel money from an apparel company (believed to be Adidas) to a recruit (believed to be Nassir Little from Orlando).
In a statement in late October, Larranaga said he believes he is “Coach-3” and said, “I cannot state more emphatically that I absolutely have no knowledge of any wrongdoing by any member of our staff and I certainly have never engaged in the conduct that some have speculated about.” He told reporters at that news conference of turning over emails and texts to FBI agents in August and of suffering “a strain physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.”
To Miami reporters after that, 2012-13 floor leader Shane Larkin of the Boston Celtics called Larranaga “probably the most down-to-earth, stick-to-the-rules, no-cheating, no-easy-way-out guy that I’ve ever played for,” and said, “There’s no way it’s true.”
To prospective questions this weekend about how he might be coping, Larranaga, no one’s idea of a refer-to-the-statement guy, asked a reporter, through a university spokesman, to refer to the statement from October.
Yet the season did begin. Larranaga stood on the sideline Friday night in a brown suit, arms folded, observing pregame warmups before the “Florida Lottery starting lineups” with the sole boo for the outmanned Gardner-Webb guys. The team stood and turned around while the university unfurled its NCAA tournament banner (first round) from last spring. Then came the familiar sound of squeaking shoes always more audible in a lightly peopled gym. Miami began slowly. It adapted. It flashed its unmistakable cast of advanced ball-sharers.
At 13:15 of the first half, standout sophomore guard Bruce Brown Jr. threw a fast-break alley-oop to freshman Lonnie Walker IV, the Mr. Basketball from Pennsylvania. Brown got a triple-double.
Walker, his personality sparkling, said later, “That’s what he does. That’s his name, Bruce Brown. Call him ‘Triple-Doub’ if you want.”
Brown said, “Man, we’ve got a lot of fire to us.”
By late Sunday and a thorough, steadfast romp through Navy, it had grown clear that anyone with a hankering for the art of basketball should have a hankering to watch Miami this year. Ed DeChellis, the seventh-year Navy coach, saw “a team to be reckoned with in the ACC and on a national level” and proclaimed his “hat’s off to Jim and the program he’s built here” and promised “they’re going to do some very fun things here for you.”
Asked about the worries Miami presents an opponent, he gave an answer tellingly long.
“Their speed, they have really good speed,” he said. “They really get down the floor. I mean, it takes them three steps. It takes us five or six steps to get to the same spot. . . . I’ve been around a long time, and you can tell when you have a good team. They can play full-court. Right? They’ve got great speed. They can push the basketball. They can play full-court. They can run their stuff in a half court. They can beat you in the half court. They’ve got great post-up players. They’ve got guys who can shoot a little bit. So they can play you that way. They can beat you on the glass. They defend. So they can beat you a bunch of different ways. So yeah, there’s a lot to worry about.
“He’s got a lot of different weapons and different ways that they can get you. You know, one kid went 1-for-whatever tonight, the other kids step up. They’ve got enough firepower for when somebody’s not having a good night, for somebody else to step up and be able to overcome that. So they’ve got a lot of guys. And the younger kids will get better and better as the season goes on. You know, the little point guard [Chris Lykes] from up in our area, in D.C., will get better, and he’ll have a better idea what shot selection is, and then the kid from Reading [Walker] will get better. Those young kids will just get better as they get more time and more time. So they’ve got some guys off the bench, too, that you’ve got to be concerned about.”
Someone asked the Miami forward from Miami, Dewan Huell, about the turnovers.
In a weekend aglow with the football team’s famous “turnover chain,” Huell said, “When you said turnovers, that kind of threw me off, thinking about the turnover chain.”
Laughter filled a room about 12 people strong.
At the outset of this who-knows year, Larranaga spoke of the importance of the impending return of injured 6-foot-9 redshirt freshman Sam Waardenburg. He told of an adjustment in the press attack. He waxed about the “dynamic jump-hooks, when they use them,” of Huell and Ebuka Izundu.
He extolled how Huell wanted to play the “4” and guard a “4” shooter for a few minutes, so Larranaga let him and then liked the performance. He said, “I think we learned some things about ourselves.” He said of his players, this promising November, “Well, right now, I would say their focus to be good is very good.”
Also, in this befuddling November, he joined those players in the alma mater before the band after the win, hands waving through the air, his 6-4 frame still imposing even next to other imposing frames. What’s all going through that accomplished head? Does the coaching help? He can’t say. This is all so unusual that even Jim Larranaga can’t say.
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