Miami coach Jim Larranaga was telling school trustees and anybody else who would listen last fall that his second year with the Hurricanes could be a very special season. Maybe even the best in school history.
Larranaga might be able to brag to everybody about having the best team in the country.
“It’s almost hard to put in words how he’s really changed the culture of our entire team. And just around the university as a whole,” senior Julian Gamble said. “He’s really gotten us back to worrying about the fundamentals of the game and doing little things well.”
Already with the ACC regular-season and tournament titles, along with a school-record 27 wins, the Hurricanes play their first NCAA tournament game in five years Friday. Miami is the No. 2 seed in the East Regional against Pacific (22-12), the Big West Conference tourney champion trying to extend another game the career of retiring long-time coach Bob Thomason.
Larranaga took mid-major George Mason to the NCAA Final Four in 2006. That makes him the only ACC coach not at Duke or North Carolina to take a team that far.
At Miami, he has a starting lineup of four seniors and standout sophomore Shane Larkin, the pick by league coaches as the ACC’s top player. There are six players on the current roster who have played at least 100 games.
“That is a little bit striking that (George Mason) has great senior leadership, older guys,” Larranaga said. “I think that combination of youthful enthusiasm and optimism with experience and size and toughness, those teams are similar.”
The significant difference is that most experts never expected George Mason to even make the tournament. These Hurricanes became the first ACC team to win the outright regular-season title and then the tournament and not get a No. 1 seed.
Pacific players are providing Thomason quite a final ride for his 25th season at his alma mater. The coach had said before this season that it would be his last, and he likely couldn’t have imagined a better ending. It is his fifth NCAA tournament appearance, and first since three in a row from 2004-06.
“We’re trying to make a better script,” Thomason said. “This turned out really well.”
The Tigers ended the regular season at home, the same day Thomason was recognized for his quarter-century at the school, with a 20-point victory over Big West regular-season champ Long Beach State. They then won the conference tournament and an automatic NCAA berth.
“That was one of my personal goals in the beginning of the year to make sure that coach will be able to leave on a great note,” said senior guard Lorenzo McCloud, the Tigers’ top scorer (11.4 points a game). “I’m thankful that he can retire in a good way.”
Even better would be an upset victory over the Hurricanes.
Remember, two No. 15 seeds — Lehigh and Norfolk State — won in last year’s NCAA tournament.
McCloud remembers those squads as team-oriented, passing the ball and helping each other on both ends of the court.
“And that’s what kind of team we are,” McCloud said. “Any one of us can get hot … Any one of us can go off for a great game. You never know who is going to do it.”
Thomason has won twice in the NCAA tournament. There were victories in consecutive years over Big East teams, Providence in 2004 and Pittsburgh the following year, but pulling off an upset against this Miami squad could be much more difficult.
“We have to do it as a team. … Our team has to bother Miami,” Thomason said. “I don’t think our individuals are going to bother Miami too much. They played against Duke, North Carolina, all these teams that have great players, great guys they know about. They’re used to all that. But we got to get our team to bother them somehow.”
Miami has never been past the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament, and none of its players have been there before now. Not even former Florida player Kenny Kadji, who as a sophomore for the Gators in 2009-10 missed the end of the season after back surgery.
Yet after their success throughout the ACC, this group certainly doesn’t seem overwhelmed on the biggest stage.
“We have been through all the games. We have seen all kinds of situations,” Kadji said. “With a guy like our coach who took a team to the Final Four … We can play any type of game. Fast game, slow game, it doesn’t matter. And executing, we’re very good at, a very good at doing that.”