Larranaga heading back to familiar DC territory
CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Jim Larranaga left the Washington area for Miami, with hopes of taking another team to the Final Four.
To make that plan a reality, he's headed back to Washington.
Larranaga and his Hurricanes (29-6) face Marquette (25-8) in the East Regional semifinals on Thursday night, a game to be played at the Verizon Center -- a half-hour drive or so away from his former workplace, George Mason, the school that he led to the Final Four in 2006. And Mason won their regional at, you guessed it, the same arena where the Hurricanes are headed this weekend, where Larranaga cut down the nets seven years ago.
Given all that, good karma sure seems like it'll be awaiting Miami.
"It'll definitely help us up there," Miami guard Rion Brown said. "What he did for that place was great. He brought it down here. I feel like there will be a lot of people there to support us and support him, and that'd be great."
Larranaga has a team that's gaining plenty of notoriety on the court, whether it's for the superb (like Shane Larkin's play at point guard) or the silly (like Julian Gamble's penchant for photo-bombing postgame interviews). The coach's demeanor out on the floor rarely seems to change much, stoic but not cold on the sideline, active but never overly animated.
When he leaves the floor, something changes.
He takes phantom charges in the locker room. He dives for loose balls to the delight of his players. He's a yeller and a screamer of encouragement. And his latest viral-video move came when he channeled Muhammad Ali after Miami beat Illinois in the third round of the NCAAs, lauding his Hurricanes for being fighters.
"He can't keep doing that," Hurricanes forward Kenny Kadji said of Larranaga's physical antics, unable to keep a straight face. "He's got to get treatment."
What Larranaga is doing sure seems to be working.
The Hurricanes had not made the NCAAs since 2008. They're now one victory away from a 30-win season, two wins shy of the Final Four and four triumphs away from winning the whole thing. Larranaga has made it happen at a university that's three years removed from going just 4-12 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
"Just like parenting, your passion for being a good father or a good mother means you don't have any minutes, hours or days off. You do it 24-7, 365, every day of your child's life," Larranaga said. "And for me and my coaching staff, that's the way we are with our players. There isn't a second of a day that goes by that there isn't something we have to do to help our players with something he's dealing with in his life."
Even on Tuesday, a practice-and-travel day for the Hurricanes, there was something to deal with.
Center Reggie Johnson had a minor surgical procedure to repair a meniscus problem and did not accompany the Hurricanes on their flight to Washington, a person familiar with the situation told The Associated Press. Johnson could return for the Final Four if Miami advances, according to the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the school did not publicly reveal the surgery.
Here's another good sign for Larranaga, though: There are some similarities between George Mason in 2006 and Miami in 2013.
In 2006, George Mason opened the tournament by knocking off Michigan State, a team that Miami defeated this season. In 2006, Mason won its second tournament game over North Carolina, a team Miami beat three times this season, the last of those prompting Tar Heels coach Roy Williams to visit the Hurricanes' locker room to deliver personal congratulations.
Larranaga guided George Mason to a regional semifinal win over Wichita State, and then the regional-title victory over Connecticut, all as a No. 11 seed that many felt did not belong in the tournament. At least this time around, the `Canes are a popular pick for the national title.
"I have such great memories," Larranaga said. "We tell the players all the time, you create memories, and they've created a lot of great memories for themselves."
Of course, he's created more than a few more memories for them with his pregame pep talks and postgame celebrations.
During the game against Illinois, Larranaga said he decided that the team that was toughest mentally and emotionally would be the one that prevailed. So he urged his team to "fight" and "fight harder," digging deep for every loose ball, every rebound.
"It was like a heavyweight boxing match," Larranaga said. "And as I walked to the locker room, I was trying to think of what I could say to them. All I could think of was fighting and the greatest fighter of all time, in my mind and my generation, was Muhammad Ali."
So Larranaga did the "Ali Shuffle" in the locker room. Quick hands punching the air, quick feet doing a fighter's dance. His players leaped from their chairs, in laughter, in amazement, in support, some combination thereof.
He didn't recall the last time he tried such a move.
"Not recently," Larranaga said. "Not in the last 45 years."
Hey, he still had the moves.
And on the sideline, he's making all the right moves with the Hurricanes.
"He can still move, as you all can see," Brown said. "He looked pretty good doing it."
Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press
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