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HomeTop NewsMiami’s Jim Larranaga has been in this March Madness position before

Miami’s Jim Larranaga has been in this March Madness position before


HOUSTON — George Mason was loose — loose and confident. That was how Folarin Campbell remembered the classic Elite Eight showdown with overall No. 1 seed Connecticut 17 years ago last Sunday.

The No. 11 Patriots were coming off of upsets of higher seeds Michigan State, North Carolina and Wichita State, and were within one win of a stunning 2006 Final Four berth. Standing in their way were the heavily favored Huskies.

UConn, with five future NBA players on its roster, didn’t know much about coach Jim Larranaga’s mid-major darlings. One player, Josh Boone, mixed up George Mason’s mascot, the Patriots, with their conference affiliation, believing the program came from the Patriot League. Larranaga, back in the Final Four this weekend at the age of 73 with fifth-seeded Miami, took advantage of the slight when he spoke to his team before the showdown.

“They don’t realize that we’re in the CAA — the Connecticut Assassin’s Association,” Larranaga told his players, former assistant coach Chris Caputo recalled. Caputo, now the head coach at George Washington, added: “That’s what he does, he’s good at sending messages, but doing it in a way that inspires guys to play well. ” It was classic Larranaga, easing the tension.

The game plan, guard Lamar Butler recalled, was simple. The George Mason coach told his players they could outscore UConn. He had that much belief in them.

“He said, ‘Go score,’ and that’s what we did,” Butler said. Larranaga, a Bronx native who played for Jack Curran at Archbishop Molloy, has this soothing way about him that can relax players in the face of pressure, Campbell said. The Verizon Center in Washington was at capacity, ear-splitting loud.

But Larranaga was able to keep the Patriots calm. At halftime, with Connecticut up nine, Larranaga said, “We’ve got the guys right where we want them. And they were like, ‘What do you mean?’ I said they think the game is over.

They’re ahead and there’s no stopping them. We’ve just begun to play. ” Prior to overtime, Larranaga gathered everyone in the huddle and told them: “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere in the world but here.

” “He just found ways to keep everybody at ease,” remembered Campbell, who works at the school on its developmental staff. “It just made us play free. ” Butler, who now coaches at Paul VI High School (Va.

) and with Team Takeover on the AAU circuit, tries to emulate Larranaga’s style, particularly when it comes to external factors. Pressure, Larranaga has told players for years, is mental. All that matters is the present.

He likes to say, “play the game, not the score. ” “He’s cracked the code on how to do it, giving guys confidence and freedom,” Butler said. “Everything he taught me I apply today.

” In the massive upset, George Mason shot remarkably well, 50 percent from the field and 50 percent from the 3-point line. It outrebounded the far bigger Huskies by three and rallied from that halftime deficit. Jim Calhoun, the Connecticut coach at the time, felt his talented team had too many distractions in terms of players fixated on their respective futures and ran into a hungrier team playing its best.

It culminated in an 86-84 George Mason victory and trip to Indianapolis for the Final Four. “That team got a little ahead of itself,” Calhoun said of those Huskies. “I think we lost sight of the final goal and Jimmy’s team played close to a perfect game.

” Larranaga’s players aren’t surprised he’s still coaching, and doing so well. He still has the same passion and love for the sport. Caputo was with him until this past season, and said the FBI Investigation into corruption in college basketball that involved the Hurricanes set them back.

Miami suffered through three straight losing seasons before reaching the Elite Eight last year and the Final Four this year. At a time when older coaches such as Roy Williams, Mike Krzyzewski and Jay Wright have moved on in the wake of the transfer portal and Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) era, Larranaga has adapted. He’s built the Hurricanes through the portal, landing key players on this year’s team such as Nijel Pack (Kansas State) and Norchad Omier (Arkansas State), and has a shot to win his first national title this weekend.

Larranaga is two wins from becoming the oldest coach to ever win a national title. Calhoun, at 68, was the oldest coach to cut down the nets at the Final Four. “Coach L is like the OG of coaching now.

He’s the last one standing,” Butler said. “Definitely deserves his flowers. It’s really astonishing to be honest.

” Ironically, Larranaga’s second Final Four trip will feature him facing the same team he had to get past to reach his first Final Four. The two March runs were very different, but similar in their meaning to the man who engineered them. George Mason remains one of the great Cinderella stories.

With Miami, Larranaga has proven he is still one of the premier coaches in the nation at the age of 73. “It’s the same exhilaration,” he said. .

From: nypost

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