March Madness

Jim Larranaga Leans on Final Four Experience in Run with No. 10 Miami

Larranaga led George Mason to their improbable Final Four run in 2006. He now has a chance to return to the Final Four if Miami beats Kansas

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Jim Larranaga only needs five minutes to convert anyone into a college basketball fan.

The Miami head coach is so earnest in his passion for the game and his players it's bordering on emotional. 

“They're really sharp. They're smart,” he said of his team. “Their basketball IQ is high. They listen attentively. And they understand the importance of doing little things well. If they didn't, we wouldn't be where we are.”

The Hurricanes advanced to their first Elite Eight in school history with a win over Iowa State on Friday.

Larranaga has made a career out of big moments, maximizing the potential of typically overlooked programs. 

This Miami team is no different. Coming off three-straight losing seasons, the Hurricanes were picked to finish 12th in the ACC. They overcame a rocky start to secure a spot in the NCAA Tournament. After narrowly winning their first round game against USC, they rolled over No. 2 Auburn and No. 11 Iowa State in style. 

“I think every trip to the NCAA Tournament is a special event for that team. And it is for me. It's a different group of guys even if just two or three guys are new on your team,” Larranaga said. “This year we had -- half our team is new. So it's a special feeling to be able to enjoy it with them.”

Larranaga grew up in the Bronx and played under legendary high school coach Jack Curran at Archbishop Molloy. Curran’s former players include Kenny “the Jet” Smith and Kenny Anderson. After spending four years at Providence where he recorded 1,258 career points, Larranaga immediately moved into coaching, taking a position among Terry Holland’s staff at Davidson. 

After five seasons with the Wildcats, American International College came calling with his first head coaching job at the age of 28. Larranaga took over a team with five consecutive losing seasons only to post a 28-25 record in his two seasons in Springfield, Mass. 

In 1976, he accepted a position as an assistant coach with Virginia, a role he held for seven seasons. With Larranaga on the sidelines, the Cavaliers made their first two Final Four appearances (1981, 1984). 

That was the last of Larranaga’s career as an assistant. After 11 successful seasons at Bowling Green, Larranaga returned to Virginia, this time with the George Mason Patriots. Longtime fans of March Madness might start to recognize this story. 

Under Larranaga, George Mason slowly started to improve, winning the CAA regular season and conference tournament in his second season at the helm. The Patriots built winning season after winning season until their breakout moment came in the 2005-06 NCAA Tournament. 

After a controversial conference tournament showing and much debate, the Patriots were named a No. 11 seed, set to take on Michigan State in the first round. They beat the Spartans, picking up the program’s first-ever NCAA Tournament win along the way before beating North Carolina and Wichita State, becoming just the fourth 11-seed to advance past the Sweet 16. 

In the Elite Eight, they clawed themselves out of a 12-point deficit to beat UConn in overtime. This cemented their status as one of the all-time great Cinderella stories and Larranaga’s place among March Madness lore. He moved to Miami in 2011 but is never one to shy away from his success. 

Over 50 years after starting his career at Davidson, Larranaga continues to relish these moments. 

Miami guard Jordan Miller joined the Hurricanes in the 2021 offseason after spending three years with George Mason, a school less than an hour from his hometown of Middleburg, Va. When asked about Larranaga’s history with the Patriots and in March Madness, Miller joked that it was the first question the coach had for him when pitching the Hurricanes. 

“Yeah, being at George Mason, it’s hard not to hear about his success there,” Miller said. “Coach L, actually, when I first talked to him, he actually said, do you know about my success at George Mason.”

It’s not enough for Larranaga to have experienced that for himself. He’s resolute in his belief that the quality of the tournament would improve if the field expanded from 68 teams.

“There's so many great teams around the country that are not playing in the event,” he said ahead of Miami’s Elite Eight matchup with Kansas. “And if St. Peters had lost in their tournament, they wouldn't have been invited. And yet you see how good they are.”

He went on to point out that the current bracket structure includes just under 19% of the 358 Division I basketball programs.

“I think the NCAA Tournament is the dream of every young basketball player, in elementary school and high school. They go to college with the hopes of, hey, I want to play in the Big Dance. I want to be part of March Madness.”

For the vast majority of players, they never get to see that dream come to fruition.

“There are a lot of teams that have never made March Madness,” Larranaga said. “Those kids dream about it and never even really get a glimpse at it. “

Larranaga credited the transfer portal for increasing the competitiveness of college basketball as talented players move for a number of reasons and create greater parity among the conferences. 

“Kids wanting to get back closer to home who went away. Or, I'm sitting on the bench someplace but I think I could start at the other school,” he said. “There's so much input in a player's life from his family, from his coaches, and they're always doing what I think we all do -- they're always looking for the best situation possible for them to realize their dream.”

Prior to George Mason’s run, LSU was the only double-digit seed to make the Final Four in 1986. In the 16 years since, four teams have reached the holy grail of college basketball as double-digit seeds -- No. 11 VCU (2011), No. 16 Syracuse (2016), No. 11 Loyola Chicago (2018) and No. 11 UCLA (2021).

Despite his confidence and pride in his former teams, Larranaga is not to be confused as arrogant.

“I've been married for 50 years, and my wife keeps me in line,” he said. “Someone recently -- I met, said hello, kind of introduced myself. And they said, Coach, you know you're a celebrity. And then when that person left, my wife said, ‘No, you're not.’”

Larranaga recognizes the increasing stakes of each subsequent round at the NCAA Tournament but maintains that every game carries equal weight, understanding they were a necessary step to get to this point.

“I know there's a tendency to think that this game is more important than other games,” he said. But if you didn't make every game important, then you couldn't get to this game.”

Larranaga undoubtedly believes that basketball should be fun. There’s no better time to put that to the test than the NCAA Tournament.

At the end of the first half during Miami’s Sweet 16 matchup, the Hurricanes led 32-19. As his team ran toward the tunnel, Larranaga greeted each of them with a smile and high five, a man radiating confidence despite holding a narrow lead. 

“My message to them was, you know, have fun. Just enjoy this moment because March Madness is the greatest sporting event in the world,” Larranaga said. “Three weeks and they call it the Big Dance because that's what it is. Everybody parties.”

This philosophy has trickled down throughout the team. 

“At the end of the day, just play free and just play together as a team and just help the team as much as possible,” Miami guard Isaiah Wong said. “Play hard, and just be yourself at the end of the day. And I feel like with that feeling it just makes us even better as a team.”

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