Larranaga hopes Miami can recapture George Mason's magic
FAIRFAX, Va. (AP) Before his Miami Hurricanes practiced at his old arena on George Mason's campus, coach Jim Larranaga gathered players at center court and pointed to the 2006 Final Four banner. He told them stories about his team's improbable run and the sacrifices and the joy that came out of it.
Ten years later, Larranaga beamed with pride as he returned to the scene of so many of his mid-major triumphs. On Thursday his team opens the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament at Verizon Center, where George Mason beat Connecticut to reach the Final Four.
Even though No. 11 Miami isn't the off-the-map underdog George Mason was, the teams share plenty of parallels.
''Our George Mason team had three seniors in the starting lineup,'' Larranaga said. ''This year's team has three seniors and a redshirt senior in the starting lineup. I would say the common denominator is experience. We have older guys, and I think they have a great deal of confidence in themselves and their ability to play at the highest level.''
The highest level is yet to come for redshirt senior guards Sheldon McClellan and Angel Rodriguez, senior center Tonye Jekiri and Co. They have work to do before Miami fans remember them the way George Mason - and college basketball - fans remember the likes of Tony Skinn, Jai Lewis and Lamar Butler from their Cinderella run in 2006.
It starts with experience and continues with cohesive play.
Miami assistant Chris Caputo and director of basketball operations James Johnson gave players a ''crash course'' in George Mason, but they also see a team that's just as close as the Patriots were.
''The George Mason team was one of the closest groups of guys that I've been around,'' Johnson said. ''I think we have a close-knit group here - a talented group and also they really get along and like each other, they like playing for each other.''
Growing up together plays a role in that.
Skinn, now an assistant at Louisiana Tech, remembered the 2004-05 George Mason team being just a younger version and could feel the difference the second time March rolled around.
''We were seldom rattled outside of our game plan,'' Skinn said in a phone interview. ''I think that says enough about experience - having guys that's been in those situations before, just knowing what to do to get out of a ballgame. The year before we didn't.''
A year ago Miami went through what Caputo said was a series of ups and strange downs and was bound for the NIT. Caputo said each team was ''hardened'' by its experiences over two seasons, and the Hurricanes started this season 11-1 and rolled to the third seed in the ACC Tournament behind only North Carolina and Virginia.
''In our situation this year we had a veteran group, so we got off to a great start,'' Larranaga said. ''Almost we're following the mid-major formula for success. The difference being in the mid-major once you get into conference play, you're not playing very many teams in the top 50 or top 100. In the ACC you're playing a top 50 team every night and a lot of times it's not even top 50 it's top 20 or top 10.''
Miami has faced tougher competition and won't be on the bubble like George Mason was in 2006 after losing in the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament.
But after getting in as a No. 11 seed, George Mason upset Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and Connecticut to reach the Final Four in Indianapolis, where it lost to eventual national champion Florida.
Like George Mason in 2006, Miami has had its share of doubters. Larranaga hasn't forgotten that initial bracket projections in September had his Hurricanes not even making the NCAA Tournament this season.
''The amount of media exposure that the NCAA Tournament gets and everything leading up to it, yeah, there's going to be some information we can use to motivate our team,'' Larranaga said.
Larranaga knows how to motivate and also how to get his players in the ''right mental frame of mind.'' He watches other teams' benches during games and can sense pressure, and the veteran coach always wants to deflect enough pressure off his players to get them to relax.
''You have a team like that competing at that level with a coach like Coach Larranaga, I don't think the philosophy changes,'' Skinn said. ''He sets the game plan for those guys and I can see even on video he's still dancing with those dudes, so I'm sure they're just as loose as we were. ... Put that all together on a neutral floor, man, and anything can happen.''