“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.”