Homecoming for Larranaga as Miami faces Marquette
Jim Larranaga smiled and raised both hands to acknowledge the fans in green - those from both Miami and George Mason - as he walked onto the court where he become part of a national sensation seven years ago.
He signed autographs, posed for pictures and was about to turn his attention to practice when he spotted two special people: Lamar Butler and Tony Skinn, starters from the 2006 GMU team. Larranaga hugged them both and reminisced about ''you guys running over to our section'' of fans at the final whistle to celebrate the win over Connecticut that sent the mid-major Patriots to the Final Four.
''This is not just any other arena,'' the coach said.
No, it's not. This is the Verizon Center, where Larranaga convinced his players that the CAA on their jerseys stood for ''Connecticut Assassin Association'' instead of the Colonial Athletic Association. It's where it became believable again that an out-of-the-blue school could advance to college basketball's biggest stage, paving the way for similar runs by Virginia Commonwealth and Butler.
And, on Wednesday, it's where Larranaga gathered his players in a circle at midcourt after warmups and told them: ''You know why they call it the Sweet 16? It's sweet! Let's go.''
Yep, still the same ol' Larranaga.
''To them I'm kind of wacky, you know?'' he said. ''I say a lot of things to them and initially they don't understand. I use quotes and our thought of the day. I ask them to explain it, they have no idea, and I have to then educate them of what we're trying to get across. Coming into this building, to them it's just another venue, but to me and my staff, it's not.''
He's now in a different league now, leading Atlantic Coast Conference champion and second-seeded Miami (29-6) against third-seeded Marquette (25-8) in Thursday's East Regional semifinals, but no one else goes viral quite like this: Larranaga's version of the Ali Shuffle, meant to demonstrate the Hurricanes' fighting mentality, became an Internet must-see after he performed it for his players following Sunday night's win over Illinois.
''His approach to the game is different,'' senior forward Julian Gamble said. ''It's very different to the coaching staff that we had previous to him arriving, but his charisma and the energy he brought, we knew it was going to be a really good thing for us, and it was easy for us to buy into that.''
Meanwhile, Marquette coach Buzz Williams' arrival in the nation's capital was no match for his counterpart's homecoming, even though the Golden Eagles have been on a compelling run of their own.
Marquette won its first two games by a combined three points, both with wipe-your-brow late comebacks. Williams' wife had an appendectomy just before the start of the tournament. He was speaking his mind as usual Wednesday, saying that the opening statement at NCAA news conferences is ''a waste of time'' and telling a reporter who asked a repeat question to get the answer ''off this lady here transcribing it'' on the stenography machine.
But this was Larranaga's day.
''I have great respect for coach Jim Larranaga,'' Williams said. ''I think he's pure in how he goes about things. I think he's a guy that someone at this point in my career can look up to, because I think he does it for the right reasons.''
Williams leaves a manic impression when the clock is running, and Georgetown fans at the Verizon Center often chant ''Off the court!'' during Big East games because he strays so far from the bench. On Wednesday, he was relaxed and calm as he watched sons Calvin and Mason and daughter Zera mingle with his players during an easygoing practice.
''If you only see me on game day, probably what you think of me is - I wouldn't say diametrically opposed - but it's distinctly different,'' he said.
Which also makes him distinctly different from Larranaga, who is pretty much the same wherever he goes. Even when he's making a return trip to the scene of his greatest triumph.
''We have seen the highlights of it. It was a great run, it was magical,'' Miami guard Shane Larkin said. ''Hopefully he still has some left in him. Not saying that we need luck, but hopefully he still has a winning touch, and it's going to be fun playing out here in this arena.''
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