When the University of Miami hired Jim Larrañaga to be its head basketball coach back in 2011, it seemed like a match made in heaven.
Up to that point in his career, Larrañaga was thought of as a coach who “did more with less” – spending the first 25 years of his career at “mid-major” programs and out of the traditional college basketball spotlight – but was held in pretty high regard around the country.
Miami, a football-centric school that dabbled in the basketball arts from time to time, wanted to wipe the slate clean of the Frank Haith era and bring in a coach that could truly tap into the hoops potential that the program had.
Fast forward six years and Larrañaga has positioned Miami to earn a consistent seat at the ACC’s “big boy table” and will lead the Hurricanes to their third trip into the NCAA Tournament this Friday when they square off against No. 9 seed Michigan State in Tulsa, Oklahoma’s BOK Center.
In his tenure as the Canes head coach, Larrañaga has posted a 139-68 record – good for the best winning percentage (.671) mark of any hoops coach (with at least 100 games coached) in the program’s history.
But, where Larrañaga leaves his best mark is postseason play.
Prior to his coming to Coral Gables, Larrañaga coached at George Mason for 14 seasons. While there, his teams won less than 16 games only once – his first season in 1997-98 – won three conference championships and turned the basketball world on its ear in 2005-06 when he led the Patriots to the Final Four.
Larrañaga’s George Mason team entered the 2006 tournament as a No. 11 seed and had one of the toughest roads to victory out of any team on the bracket.
Their run began with an upset of Michigan State (goosebumps) – Larrañaga’s first NCAA tournament win – and continued through the second round, where George Mason knocked off defending champion North Carolina.
George Mason then defeated Wichita State in the Elite Eight and upset regional top seed UConn to advance to the Final Four.
The Patriots’ dream season ended in the Final Four when Larrañaga’s squad was overwhelmed by eventual champion Florida.
Still, it was the greatest season in George Mason’s history and showed both the coaching and motivating chops that Coach L possesses.
It’s been reported that during the run to the Final Four, Larrañaga told his George Mason players during the game against North Carolina that “their fans think they’re supermen. Our fans know we’re kryptonite.”
As well as motivating his players during the game against Connecticut by telling them that the UConn players didn’t know what conference George Mason was in and that “on this day ‘CAA’ stood for “Connecticut Assassins Association.”
George Mason played in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) during Larrañaga’s time there. The school has since moved into the Atlantic 10.
That kind of magic still lies within Larrañaga. He’s done similar things to motivate the Hurricanes – including dancing with the team in the locker room after big wins. Even in 2014-15 when the Canes failed to make the Big Dance, Larrañaga led UM to the championship round of the NIT – before they fell to Stanford in an overtime game in Madison Square Garden.
Coach L will have to work his magic again this season if the Canes are to advance to the Sweet 16 for the third time under his leadership.
The road begins Friday against a Michigan State team that is a bit better than its 19-11 record would say and if Miami comes out victorious there – it would very likely see regional No. 1 seed Kansas in the second round.
This Miami team did post another 20-win season but it’s safe to say that Larrañaga has done “the most with the least” given the team only boasts nine scholarship players and typically had a rotation of about seven players.
“This was a special year for me and the staff and the players,” Larrañaga told reporters before the team left for Oklahoma.
“Going into the season with six very inexperienced players and only three veterans…we really had only nine scholarship guys this year. There were games we only had seven. We had one player suspended for three games [Ja’Quan Newton] and we won those three games. We’ve overcome a lot of adversity and are hitting our stride right now and hopefully we’ll play very well on Friday night.”