Seven years ago, Jim Larranaga was in the spotlight as the trendy mid-major coach that led George Mason on a historic Cinderella run to the 2006 Final Four.
Pacific head coach Bob Thomason has had that title bestowed on him at times, having led Pacific, a program of similar caliber to George Mason, to prominence several years in the coach’s 25-year career. But Larranaga made the jump that Thomason never made, leaving the Patriots for Miami and the basketball-rich ACC.
Friday, Thomason and Larranaga will face off against one another when the 15th-seeded Tigers play No. 2 seed Miami in the second round of the NCAA tournament in Austin, Texas. Both coaches are well-versed in upsets, setting up an enticing matchup between two of the most respected coaches in the game.
“Jim has changed college basketball when he took his George Mason team to the Final Four. It opened up the door for mid-majors saying they can go to the Final Four,” Thomason said. “I really like guys that paid their way in coaching and now they get a chance to play at a large school and see his coaching take over.”
Friday’s game may potentially be Thomason’s last, as the head coach is set to retire at the conclusion of the season. He made his exit from Stockton and from the Big West Conference on winning notes has his team riding a seven-game winning streak.
While the Tigers haven’t been to an NCAA tournament since 2006, Thomason is no stranger to the postseason sidelines. This is his sixth trip to the Dance as a head coach. He built Pacific into a formidable mid-major power in the 90s and early 2000s, groomed a first-round draft pick in Michael Olowakandi and his teams busted brackets in 2004 and 2005.
None of that is not lost on Larranaga.
“Coach Thomason is basically a legend,” Larranaga said. “Anybody that can coach at the same school for 25 years like he has done deserves the utmost respect.”
Thomason’s teams have always been known for a specific, disciplined style of play. Hard-nosed and defensive-minded, this season’s edition is no different.
The Tigers (22-12) are allowing just 63.5 points per game, second in the Big West, and rely on lateral ball movement to run several defensive screens.
“They play several different defenses and change those defenses constantly, giving you a different look from time to time throughout the contest,” Larranaga said.
The team’s defensive prowess will be key in guarding three of the ACC’s top scorers in Shane Larkin, Kenny Kadji and Durand Scott.
Miami (27-6), the ACC winners, are strong in the front court but point guard Larkin, the son of Hall of Fame baseball player Barry Larkin, has been garnering the most attention from the NBA scouts.
Rebounding and spreading the trio out will be big factors Tigers’ game plan.
“They’re pretty big across the board. Along with their size, they’re pretty versatile. Especially Kenny Kadji, being 6 11, being able to go out to the perimeter and shoot three, go inside, go outside,” Gill said. “We just have to match their toughness and be able to hopefully cause some sort of problems down low.”
After a season in which the Tigers relied more on depth than on a true set of stars, Tony Gill emerged in last week’s Big West tournament as the go-to. Gill lit it up from behind the arc, going 4-for-4 from the perimeter in the Big West semifinals and scored 19 in the final performance. Even in a reserve role, Gill, a post player with a deadly outside shot, still managed to lead his team to the title and was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. The bulk of Gill’s shots came on the smooth passing and efficient screening of Lorenzo McCloud.
“When we’re moving the ball and getting open shots for our teammates, we’re really tough to guard,” said forward Travis Fulton. “Any one of our positions at times can shoot the ball really well, and that causes some mismatches for teams.”
Pacific, winner of last week’s Big West Conference tournament, is getting a fair amount of attention as a 15 seed. The story of last year’s tournament was 15 seeds upsetting Duke and Missouri. The upsets are part of what makes March Madness both special and maddening at the same time.
“I think it’s just all about what team gets hot,” Gill said. “Which ones are able to play the whole 40 minutes from start to finish. I think teams that are coach able at this point in the year and have positive attitudes and play collectively with one another definitely have the best shot.”
“I think that now in college basketball seeds mean a lot less because you see these mid-major teams beating these high major teams on a more consistent basis,” said Miami forward Julian Gamble. “They want to win just as bad as we do. And they have an equal chance of winning this game and a national championship as anybody else, in my opinion, because you have to go out there and play the game.”
The Tigers have played four games against NCAA tournament teams this season and took one game from St. Mary’s. The team wants nothing more than to extend the career of their vaunted head coach. With a little March luck, they just might.
“I think as long as we understand that we still have to stay within ourselves, try to do what we do best,” Gill said. “And as far as the intimidation factor, we just have to treat it just like any other game.
“Because at the end of the day they still put their shorts on just like we do.”